Lots of ideas are circulating about how to cut the cost of Cook County government, and among them is this one: getting out of the business of providing services to unincorporated areas.
What catches the eye of the cost-cutters is a potential savings of $54.7 million a year.
But don't start writing all those savings into Cook County budget calculations just yet. It won't be all that easy to achieve.
Toni Preckwinkle, recently elected Cook County Board president, has said she thinks responsibility for unincorporated areas should be "assumed by the nearest municipality."
Right now, the county provides law enforcement; highways; and building-and-zoning and animal-control services for unincorporated areas. Preckwinkle would like to hand those responsibilities over to the nearest village or city.
"I think that over the long term our goal should be to eliminate unincorporated areas," Preckwinkle said.
But here's the catch. In many cases, those adjoining municipalities don't want the unincorporated areas. The prime tax base - shopping centers, auto dealerships, etc. - most likely already has been annexed to a municipality. What's left are tax base losers - areas that don't generate enough tax revenue to cover the services they need. Municipalities don't want them for the same reason Preckwinkle wants to get rid of them. They blow a hole in whoever's budget they are in.
Moreover, unincorporated areas often lack sewers, curbs or gutters that meet municipal codes. Many use well water and would have to hook up to municipal water systems. That costs money.
Other counties around the state routinely provide services to areas that aren't inside municipal borders. But 85 percent of the land in Cook is part of one of the 128 municipalities in the county. The 109,000 residents in the dozens of small unincorporated areas that together total 946 square miles make up just 2.1 percent of the county's 5.28 million population. According to the Civic Federation's calculations, the $54.7 million spent on services to unincorporated areas comes to $501 per resident.
The county also operates 1,439 lane-miles of roads and highways in both incorporated and unincorporated areas, according to Civic Federation numbers. An earlier effort to transfer some of them to municipal control was not exactly welcomed by municipal officials, who didn't want the associated maintenance costs.
To get around municipal opposition, the Civic Federation in its Cook County Modernization Report released last month proposed the creation of "special service areas." These would show up as extra lines on the property tax bills of landowners in unincorporated areas. The idea is they would generate enough extra money to offset the cost of providing services.
Special service areas would add more layers of government in a metropolitan area that already has 88 "miscellaneous" governmental units to go with its 1,138 county, municipal, township, school district, fire district, park district and library district governmental bodies
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