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updated: 5/3/2012 5:43 PM

Call to eliminate unincorporated land gets mixed reaction

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Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan gave a flat "no" Wednesday to a Cook County task force study calling for municipalities to annex all unincorporated areas to save the county money.

But Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson said his town might well be open to the idea. And in Palatine, where the village has already annexed a large section of unincorporated residences, one official said the village may be willing to annex more.

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The three municipalities were polled Wednesday for their reaction to the task force study and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's call to eliminate the unincorporated areas where roughly 98,000 of the county's 5.2 million residents live.

County officials have no timeline for eliminating unincorporated neighborhoods, or estimates for what the county would save by no longer having to provide sheriff's patrols and other services to those areas.

Only 6.5 percent of the county's 945 square miles is unincorporated. However, hundreds of tiny parcels throughout the county amount to a total of 62 square miles of unincorporated land.

The biggest piece of unincorporated land is in Maine Township, where nearly 26,000 people live in largely multifamily housing between Des Plaines, Park Ridge and Niles.

Moylan rejects the idea of Des Plaines residents having to bear the costs of any future annexation.

"I'm not going to be for anything that's going to raise the taxes of residents, and we are not going to balance Cook County's budget on our backs," Moylan said.

"We balanced our budget and are shrinking the size of government," he added, saying annexing land would require increased police and fire services at a time when the city's emergency services already are stretched thin.

For years, the city has shelved plans to build a new police headquarters and a new fire station for the north side of town. The original price tag for those projects was more than $70 million.

"Unless they can show us some benefits to our residents and to the community, right now we don't have enough information even to consider something like that," the mayor said

Johnson said Wednesday that Elk Grove Village might be open to annexing land if it would improve services for residents and save taxpayers money.

"The problem we face today is there are so many layers of government, yet the dollars are becoming fewer and harder to get," Johnson said. "I've been a long proponent that any way we can reduce the levels of government and maybe even the number of government agencies, the better for everybody."

Johnson lauded Preckwinkle for taking on the issue.

Elk Grove Village surrounds much of the unincorporated land in Elk Grove Township, home to an estimated 700 to 1,000 people living in apartment complexes. It would be a small addition to the village's 35,000 population sprawled over 11 square miles, Johnson said.

The village provides sewer services to unincorporated residents, but its snow plows stop at the village boundaries.

"Why have a county sheriff drive 20 minutes to get there, while our police are patrolling the whole area around it now," Johnson said. "If we can pick up the services at little or no additional cost, and save the taxpayers money and provide better quality service, we're open to it."

Johnson said since eliminating unincorporated areas would require legislative action, the state also should consider getting rid of township government.

"We don't ride horses and buggies anymore. We need to get with the times," Johnson said.

"Most township services we could pick up at next to no additional cost. When we built our village hall, we had extra square footage set aside in case we ever do pick up the assessor or general assistance (functions of the township)."

Palatine Village Manager Reid Ottesen said Cook County has neglected code enforcement and property maintenance in unincorporated areas, which in many places have substandard stormwater facilities and are running on wells and septic sewers.

"It's not the urban infrastructure that the rest of the community enjoys," Ottesen said. "If we're going to bring them in, who is going to pay for that? I don't think it's right to make the existing residents of Palatine pay for it."

Unincorporated residents could end up paying a surcharge for infrastructure upgrades and better police protection, code enforcement, and property maintenance. Those details would have to be worked out in conversations with those residents, he said.

"We annexed about 10,000 people back in 2000," Ottesen said. "We had to create an entire new police beat, hire new code enforcement officers. It had to be systematic. It was residents that came to us for that."

That annexation also brought Palatine significant commercial property that eventually may help offset the cost of increased municipal services.

"What's left (of the unincorporated areas) is almost exclusively residential," Ottesen said.

The Northwest Municipal Conference is expected to meet with Cook County officials in the next several weeks to get some questions answered, he added.

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