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Suffredin Aims to Raise Visibility of Cook County's "Stealth Government"

Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Evanston Roundtable
by Marguerite Allen

Cook County government tends to hide in the tall grass where the taxpayer cannot see it. In a recent interview, Commissioner Larry Suffredin called it "stealth government." He should know. He has been mowing the grass for almost a year and a half now, since his election from the 13th District.

The 13th District has 360,000 residents and stretches north from Rogers Park to Glencoe and as far west as Northbrook and Niles. It is the only city-suburban district in Cook County. Commissioner Suffredin is one of 17 commissioners serving on the County Board.

Cook County government affects Evanstonians in many important ways. It is responsible for operating various institutions, such as the Circuit Court system of Cook County, the Cook County Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Detention Center, Cook County Hospital, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and the Chicago Botanic Gardens. It also provides a health care safety net for the uninsured.

Of the 102 counties in the state of Illinois, only Cook County has home rule. This means it has more flexibility in imposing taxes. These taxes can be levied "invisibly," such as in movie theater tickets, or more obviously in the form of property taxes.

The Cook County Budget
With the Cook County budget at approximately $3 billion, raising the visibility of Cook County government and making it more accountable are some of Commissioner Suffredin's top priorities. His position on this year's County Budget was clear. He, together with other newly elected commissioners fought to reduce expenses and avoid new taxes. The budget fight, Oct., 2003 - Feb. 2004, he said, "highlighted the lack of scrutiny that the County Budget has gotten in the past." (Visit www. larrysuffredin.org under "news items.")

Commissioners like Larry Suffredin, who desired to reduce expenses in the County's budget, managed to defeat increased sales taxes and a new lease tax. Property Tax Assessments

Evanston citizens were among those hit with new property tax assessments this year. As a result of the 2004 triennial assessment, the median assessed value of residential property in Evanston increased about 33 percent.

Commissioner Suffredin says he feels he has a responsibility to inform citizens about the property tax assessments, because the assessments are done by the County. He has held two Evanston Township property tax seminars with Assessor James Houlihan, State Senator Schoenberg and State Representative Julie Hamos. A final seminar will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow, July 15, at the City Council Chambers in the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.

A bill passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by Governor Rod Blagojevich will cap increases in the assessed value of residential property at seven percent per year for three years.
Commissioner Suffredin testified in Springfield in favor of the cap and sponsored a County Board resolution to apply the cap to Cook County. Commissioner Suffredin has assured residents, "adjustments in assessments will be made" once the bill becomes law.

These assessments, adjusted or not, will not necessarily increase the amount of property taxes paid by Evanstonians but will change each property owner's share of those taxes.

The Old Cook County Hospital
The Commissioner is working to preserve the old landmark Cook County hospital building at 1835 Harrison St. in Chicago. He would like to expand the reuse of the building to include a clinic, offices for Cook County doctors and a pharmacy. "My belief is that I can save the County taxpayers up to $30 million if we come up with a constructive reuse of this building," he said.

Primary Care Clinic
Commissioner Suffredin's Health Task Force is collaborating with County and local authorities to set up a primary care clinic in the 13th District within the next 18 months. The clinic would provide referrals for specialized medical treatment. The County already has 31 clinics, but none near Evanston. The Task Force met recently with officials from St. Francis Hospital, Evanston Health Department, Skokie Health Department, Access for Care and with Ruth Rothstein, the retiring Chief of Cook County Bureau of Health Services.

Housing
Commissioner Suffredin has also introduced an anti-discrimination ordinance to permit persons with housing vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 certificates) find homes where they want to live. He says Evanston, with nearly 1,000 persons holding these vouchers, is second only to Harvey. This situation, he says, places a heavy burden on Evanston's schools and social services and adds, "It is also a particularly unfair burden because these residents come to Evanston from communities where they couldn't find homes."

His proposed ordinance would add "source of income" as a protected class, thereby making it a violation of the Human Rights Act to discriminate against a person whose source of rental payment is a Section 8 voucher. In this way, he says, he is trying to make sure everyone in the County operates under the same rules. A similar ordinance, proposed for Evanston nearly two years ago, remains in committee.

The Forest Preserve
Commissioner Suffredin's Forest Preserve Task Force and local volunteers have helped clean up the County's forest preserves. In addition, because of past inappropriate uses of County forest preserve property, the Commissioner is working to redefine land use policy for the forest preserves. He is also looking for revenue sources to be able to purchase additional land.

County Laws and Board Issues Online
Mr. Suffredin and his fellow commissioners have found other ways to make County government more visible: recodification of all County laws and making them available online. This process should be completed later this year and will be regularly updated.

Similarly, the County will have its own web site comparable to the State's "legislative digest," where citizens can follow issues that have been introduced to the County Board to follow their progress.


 

 



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