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Cook board member in line for big county deal

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

When bags of gold magically appear in the pockets of people with clout -- a frequent occurrence in this town -- I get suspicious.   Sometimes, there's a reasonable explanation. Even all Chicago pols aren't always guilty.  But more often than not, it's like Mayor Daley and his nephew.  Robert Vanecko got tens of millions from city pension funds strictly because of his financial acumen, right?

   Which leads to a story.  It's about how Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider and his family are in line to get much geld -- by one count, as much as $11 million -- in a property deal with Cook County.

   The commissioner and others have explanations, some of them pretty good. But there are other questions and concerns about a pending deal that has received remarkably little media attention,

  Here's the story.

  Mr. Schneider, four siblings and his mother own a golf course in the northwest corner of the county known as Rolling Knolls Country Club.   The county has been eyeing the property for years as a nice potential addition to its forest preserve system, according to Chris Adams, the real estate agent for the forest preserve, but the Schneider family has been more interested in developing housing on the land.

   The family's specific proposal -- 92 single-family homes and 40 townhouses on a portion of the 56 acres involved -- was rejected last August by the Elgin Plan Commission.  The Schneiders wanted to annex the land to Elgin after the housing development.

   Three weeks later, on Sept. 4,  the Cook County Forest Preserve Commission voted to begin proceedings to acquire the land, by condemnation if necessary.

  Mr. Schneider, a Streamwood Republican who serves on the commission as well as on the county board, did not vote.   And he obtained a written opinion from the county's Board of Ethics that the acquisition could proceed, so long as it occurred by condemnation, in which a court obtains various appraisals and sets the price.

   Since then, as per the ethics board, the county made an offer to the Schneiders, who rejected it.  Mr. Adas says the county will file suit to condemn the property "in the next week or two."

   Based on all of that, Mr. Schneider says he's acting completely properly.  The family spent $1.62 million preparing the land for the housing development, he says, and now the county is acquiring it at the bottom of the market.

   "We had offers three years ago of $8 million," Mr. Schneider says.  "Now, they'll get it at a bargain basement price" of perhaps $5 million.

   Mr. Schneider further notes that he and county President Todd Stroger are no friends.  Other commissioners confirm that Mr. Schneider consistently has voted against Mr. Stroger's budgets and tax hikes, and that the president would not be likely to go out of his way to do Mr. Schneider a favor.

   And, Mr. Schneider has not been personally involved in negotiations over the land. His brother has handled that task.

   However, amid all of this, something else happened.

   Remember that rejection by the Elgin Plan Commission in August, followed by the county vote to acquire the land on Sept. 4?

    Despite those actions, the Schneider family continued to seek Elgin approval for the 92 single-family homes and 40 townhouses.  The Elgin City Council voted approval on Dec. 4  --- three months after Cook County began the acquisition process.

   Now, you don't have to be Donald Trump to know that property zoned for lots of housing is worth more than property zoned for grass, trees and birdies. Maybe a lot more.

   The forest preserve's Mr. Adas says the county's appraisals took that into account.  Mr. Schneider says the family had to continue the process to protect itself, in case Cook County suddenly changes its mind about acquisition.  "It took us two years to get as far as we did" with Elgin, he says.

   But I'm not buying it. Mr. Schneider's fiduciary duty to county taxpayers, to keep the price down, isn't the same as his duties to his family, to get the price up.  That looks an awful lot like a conflict of interest, regardless of how many ethic boards and judges are involved.

  "The whole thing stinks to high heaven," says another GOP commissioner, the often outspoken Tony Peraica.  "It's a clear conflict for him to be involved (with the county) while the property is being acquired.  The only solution is for him to resign."

   Mr. Peraica says his sources tell him the final price could hit $11 million.

   Like I said, folks. Bags of gold in the pockets of people with clout.  I've detailed everything I know about this case. Decide for yourself.

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