With Labor Day around the corner, many suburban police departments are saturating roads with extra patrols aimed at snagging drunken drivers and seat belt scofflaws.
But the results of these additional patrols, funded by federal grants distributed by the Illinois Department of Transportation, show some departments are more efficient than others.
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For example, Streamwood police were reimbursed $5,610 for 48 hours of additional patrolling during the 2011 Labor Day campaign that netted 64 citations, of which three were for drunken driving and none were for seat belt violations. Meanwhile, the McHenry County sheriff's office spent a similar amount on 105 hours of additional patrols that netted 102 citations, including six DUI arrests and 17 seat belt violations.
Streamwood police spent $117 for every hour of patrol, while McHenry County deputies cost $54 an hour.
An update on the police enforcement grants, an issue we've investigated throughout this year, is just one topic in today's Suburban Tax Watchdog column. It also includes the latest on the dispute over the Otter Creek Water Reclamation District in South Elgin, where costly duplication of services might be coming to an end. There's also more about the elk herd in Busse Woods.
Reports on topics like these, originally instigated by readers' tips, are presented from time to time as something we call watchdog kibble. Here's a fresh helping.
While most of the nation takes the first Monday in September off to celebrate Labor Day, many suburban police officers are signing up for extra duty focused on drunken driving and seat belt usage.
Some of the overtime costs are covered through the federal Sustained Traffic Enforcement Grant program.
The Labor Day enforcement campaign, which began a few days ago, is one of the most popular among suburban departments, making it one of the most costly.
Thirty-nine suburban departments were reimbursed almost $260,000 last year in the Labor Day campaign and wrote 5,660 citations, including 201 arrests for drunken driving, the campaign's primary focus.
When tracking costs by the hour, Palatine, Buffalo Grove, Lake Zurich and Naperville join Streamwood on the high end, coming in between $107 and $73. The average among the departments was $60 per hour.
IDOT officials have said in the past that results from each department are analyzed each year to determine funding for future years. However, departments with lackluster results often receive additional funding the next year. Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- the agency that doles out the funds -- said they rely on reports from the state to determine future funding and rarely examine departmental results.
Recently, the program has fallen under greater scrutiny as Des Plaines police have begun an investigation to determine whether they were wrongly reimbursed for additional patrols.
The department's funding has been suspended by IDOT.
"Once the department's investigation is complete, we will determine if any additional action is warranted," said Guy Tridgell, an IDOT spokesman. "If any funds were misused, they will be recovered."
Des Plaines was reimbursed almost $33,000 for its 2011 Labor Day campaign that resulted in 1,060 citations, the highest numbers of any suburban department. However, some of that money might have been paid to cover costs of regular patrols, rather than overtime as designated in the grant program, according to Des Plaines officials.
The majority of Des Plaines' efforts in the last Labor Day campaign focused on seat belt enforcement, with 830 tickets being issued for such violations. But the program calls for increased efforts in drunken driving arrests during the Labor Day campaign.
Incoming Police Chief William Kushner said the program's future will be scrutinized when he takes the reins in September.
"I don't like taking a grant and not matching enforcement expectations," he said.
Statewide, nearly $1.4 million was spent to reimburse more than 150 police departments for the Labor Day enforcement campaign in 2011.
Another $821,558, also paid by the federal government, was spent last year to advertise the enforcement period to the public. By the time the campaign was over, 21,586 tickets had been issued across the state, and 962 drunken drivers didn't get the message.
Water battle ending
A watchdog column last month was devoted to an investigation into a little-known water district in South Elgin.
An ongoing legal skirmish between the Otter Creek Water Reclamation District, the village and a commercial property developer had uncovered financial records that showed hundreds of thousands of district dollars being paid each year for duplicative administrative tasks.
Because customers of the water district were also village residents, the residents were essentially suing themselves.
The water district had no employees and no headquarters, and all of its services were handled by South Elgin. What it did have was high legal fees and millions of dollars of debt.
South Elgin decided to take over the water district, refinance its debt and cut the duplication of administrative services, as allowed under an intergovernmental agreement. While some members of the water district's nonelected board put up a fight, the battle appears to be over.
On Monday, the South Elgin village board unanimously voted to take over the district's operations and debt. Next week, the water district's board is set to vote to dissolve by Aug. 31.
By avoiding a forcible takeover, South Elgin will have more time to look into refinancing options for the water district's debt, said South Elgin attorney Derke Price. Without agreement, the village would have to refinance the bonds within six months, he said.
About $200,000 a year in legal and administrative fees will be saved by the move, plus another $100,000 by eliminating the water district's service contract with South Elgin. A final $18,000 each year will be saved by eliminating the water district's board, which had three members being paid $6,000 a year each.
South Elgin officials said neither water rates nor taxes will go up as a result of the takeover.
A previous column answered a reader's question about the cost of maintaining Cook County's elk herd at the Ned Brown Forest at Busse Woods Forest Preserve near Elk Grove Village, which turned out to be $2,000 to $3,000 a year depending on the bitterness of the winter.
Apparently, elk interest never wanes. Several readers were curious about the antlers the elk shed each year before growing a new set. One reader wanted the antlers as a chew toy for his dog.
It turns out the antlers already have a use. Forest preserve biologist Chris Anchor said the antlers are donated to Brookfield Zoo, whose veterinarians treat the herd. While Brookfield uses some as educational props for young visitors, they are also given as treats to zoo critters who chew on them to sharpen or trim their teeth.