For as little as $225 a month, select Cook County Forest Preserve District employees get to live in secluded suburban houses, with just one requirement:
Check for fires, trespassers, illegal dumping and hunters, then fill out a checklist every month of what was found.
But records provided to the Chicago Sun-Times show 93 percent of those employees aren't doing the bare minimum.
And, officials admit, they can't provide housing report records from 1999 through 2002 because they can't find them.
The records they did find show six employees have virtually ignored the basic requirement of turning in a monthly report, filing fewer than three reports each since 2003.
40 years of reliability
In the Salt Creek district, where four employees live, they're turning in reports only 21 percent of the time, according to records.
Not even Leonard Smurzynski, who has lived in Forest Preserve housing longer than anyone else -- 40 years -- has turned in a required report each month, though he continues to pay just $225 a month to live in his Niles home.
The Forest Preserve's lease agreement with the 60 employees who live in the homes says that, in exchange for cheap rent, they only have to fill out their monthly checklist.
Employees who don't comply with the lease are to be evicted.
District spokesman Steve Mayberry conceded "some of these people are not doing" what's required.
"The likelihood that some will lose their houses is serious, realistic and, frankly, very likely," he added.
Records lacking from 2003
Records show there is no consistency to the reports.
In May of 2003, just 13 reports were filed by the 60 tenants, while 54 were filed in March of 2004.
Some watchmen simply check a box each month, sign their name and turn it in, which is all that's required. Still others, however, provide pages of details about what they found each month.
The reports were provided after a public records request filed in June. But as recently as last week, district officials were claiming they might have missed some records.
Or they might not have.
The stack of records provided showed not a single report turned in by district Police Chief Richard Waszak, who moved into a Lemont ranch home in August of 2003. Waszak wouldn't return calls about his missing reports, but through Mayberry insisted he's turned in reports every month and could provide copies.
By Friday, district staff found all of Waszak's 2004 reports, but could find none from 2003.
The records also show that Charles Mitchell, who pays $295 a month to live in Mount Prospect, has turned in only one report in the last year. James Womack, Jeff Gehrke, Andres Hernandez and now-former tenants Al Leitzow and Tony Maglione only turned in two reports in a two-year period.
Mayberry said "we're not protecting what happened in the past," but said the monthly reports don't tell the whole story of what the watchmen provide for the district.
"Graffiti is cleaned up all the time, cars left on district property -- those aren't on there," he said, though he insists the district will get tough with watchmen, and "there won't be a free ride on the district."
Taking 'serious' action
Since Steve Bylina was named superintendent last year, Mayberry said, he's made the much-maligned housing program a focus for better management and discipline, pushing for more accountability.
"Our housing committee will take serious disciplinary action, up to and including getting some of these guys out," he said. "They won't be kicked out for missing one report, but we will definitely have them in here answering why they didn't turn it in."
But Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a constant critic of the housing program, says that's not enough.
With the cash-strapped district considering raising property taxes to cover expenses, he's again pointing to the program as a way to raise thousands of unrealized dollars, simply by charging the watchmen market-rate rent.
Last year, the district collected $257,461 in revenue from rents paid by employees for the housing.
But with more district housing in the pricey northwest suburbs than anywhere else, real estate officials have told the Sun-Times the district could double its revenues simply by charging market rate. By example, one employee lives in a Barrington preserve, paying $295 a month in rent.
"The symbolism of raising property taxes and at the same time handing out these mansions for a song is just outrageous," Claypool said.
"What you've [the Sun-Times] found shows that despite their efforts to dress it up, the Forest Preserve District is still a government of the insiders, by the insiders and for the insiders."
ULTIMATE PERK FOR FOREST PRESERVE WORKERS . . .
AT A GLANCE
There are 60 Cook County Forest Preserve District employees living in district-owned housing. They make an average of $46,016 and pay an average rent of $367 a month, providing "resident watchman" services when off the job. But records show the 60 employees reported just 21 incidents a month - or less than one per person - since 2002. In the last two years, 93 percent of them did not turn in a monthly report, as required, detailing their "watchman" duties.