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Preckwinkle eyes cutting forest preserve cops, hiking court fees

Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle released a plan Tuesday for her first term in office that could jettison the controversial Forest Preserve police to cut costs and generate revenues by raising or expanding court and other fees.

The 26-page report prepared for Preckwinkle by her transition team focuses on putting the county’s fiscal house in order while professionalizing a $3 billion government tarnished by scandal. She released the sweeping recommendations just one day after she was sworn in.

The report revisits what Preckwinkle has said for weeks about the county’s dire financial picture in 2011: An estimated $487 million hole is looming in a $3.2 billion spending plan.

With the fiscal year already begun Dec. 1 and the budget deadline Feb. 28, Preckwinkle is calling for 21 percent across-the-board cuts in the final three quarters of the year. That could translate to significant layoffs as roughly 80 percent of the county’s finances cover payroll and benefits.

During her first 100 days in office, she plans to cap most hiring and salaries in her office and limit overtime while expanding youth education programs at the county-run forest preserves

This lays the ground work for repealing, incrementally, the remainder of the unpopular penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike by 2013, Preckwinkle has said.

The report, developed with the advice of business and community leaders along with an array of retired government workers and politicians, acknowledges she needs the support of the 17 county commissioners along with the 11 separately elected officials to get anything done.

While Preckwinkle and her staff couldn’t be reached to talk about specifics, the report alludes to expanding the base of fees or hiking existing fees to at least keep up with inflation.

“County government can generate non-tax revenues by optimizing fee levels, for example license or court fees,” the report states in part. “County government can in addition charge convenience fees and charge fees to access information stored by the [c]ounty, particulars information stored for commercial purposes.”

She’s also examining whether to dissolve the county’s forest preserve police, handing off those duties to the sheriff’s office.

“A transfer of policing responsibilities would save taxpayers,” the report states.

While the Forest Preserve of Cook County is a legally separate entity — with a separate budget — from Cook County government, the president and county commissioners run both.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has supported taking over the policing duties, saying it would save taxpayers $8 million annually.

Last year, the Sun-Times reported the Forest Preserve of Cook County paid $2 million for a Westchester home next to a nature preserve, ostensibly to keep development at bay, only to turn it in to a 5,428-square-foot forest preserve police headquarters.

Preckwinkle and other candidates cried foul, particularly after learning the pricetag for rehabbing the home: $714,526.

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