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Residents torn over Preckwinkle's push to end Cook County's unincorporated areas
Some fear taxes, regulations will rise after annexation; others hope for better policing and services

Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by John Keilman and Monique Garcia

Carl Walters moved to Lake Park Estates in the 1970s, and in all that time, not much has changed in this verdant slice of unincorporated land bordered by the village of Palatine.

The neighborhood pays for its own water and sewer service, along with the maintenance of a little park, while the Palatine Township Road District plows the snow and the Cook County sheriff's office handles policing.

As far as Walters is concerned, the arrangement works beautifully. But to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, it's an expensive and unsustainable way to serve the patchwork of far-flung, wildly varying communities that make up unincorporated Cook — and she'd like to see them swallowed up by surrounding suburbs.

Preckwinkle said Monday that she wants to accelerate efforts to get towns to annex into their borders the county's 62 square miles of unincorporated land where an estimated 98,000 people live. Such a move would leave those municipalities to pick up the cost for police protection, animal control and other key services.

"I would hope that we can make progress in the next year or two and that within a decade we would have reached our goal, which is the elimination of unincorporated Cook," she said. "I would hope that we could do that before the decade is out, but some of these issues are very complicated."

That's putting it mildly. Unincorporated sections of Cook County encompass everything from pastoral subdivisions graced with tranquil lakes to gritty commercial strips studded with nudie joints. For some, living in unincorporated Cook County means living off the grid, out from under the taxing and ordinance-heavy thumbs of their more restrictive neighbor towns. For others, the dwindling strips of unincorporated land are a vestige of a bygone era, its population, however small, a drain on already overburdened budgets.

Upon hearing of Preckwinkle's plan, several residents found the idea of being annexed abhorrent, saying they didn't want to lose their independence, see their taxes go up or get tangled in village regulations. Others said they would gladly join a nearby town if it meant better services.

That divergence of opinion was evident in Lake Park Estates, where Walters saw nothing but downside in a potential shotgun wedding with Palatine. If the village were calling the shots, he wondered, would Lake Park Estates have to install sidewalks? Give up its wells? Turn its park into condos?

"I don't want to look like every other street," said Waters, a retired electrical contractor. "That's why I moved out here."

Just across the community pond, though, his neighbor Bill Hoffbeck said he was fine with the idea. He has lived in homes inside and outside the village limits over the last 44 years and thought little would change if Palatine were to absorb the subdivision.

"When you're surrounded by a village, it doesn't make much difference," he said.

For her part, Preckwinkle sought to frame the issue as a matter of fairness, saying taxes collected from residents of unincorporated areas aren't enough to cover the cost of the services they use. She argues that it's unfair for the majority of Cook taxpayers to pick up the tab for those expenses, which divert dollars from other priorities such as health care and criminal justice.

Preckwinkle, however, couldn't say Monday how much money could be saved in the long run. She acknowledged that it might cost money on the front end if the county were to revamp infrastructure to make it more attractive for communities to absorb unincorporated areas.

As part of her sales pitch, Preckwinkle said residents of unincorporated areas would benefit from annexation because many of the services the county provides could be handled more effectively by towns better equipped for day-to-day operations.

Preckwinkle's proposal was met with skepticism by some suburban leaders who say their communities already are struggling to get by amid the economic turmoil that's seen tax revenues plummet in recent years.

"Each town with very limited resources has certain infrastructure repairs, upgrades we'd like to make in our current incorporated area. Adding on additional territories could stretch those limited dollars too thin," said Rick Boehm, village manager of southwest suburban Palos Park.

Sue Lonardi, who lives in La Grange Heights, an unincorporated community near La Grange, said becoming part of La Grange would bring much-needed services to the neighborhood.

"We need work done," she said. "There are no sidewalks, the streets need paving and we need more police and access to the library. Our taxes go up anyway, and we get nothing for it. If we got work done, it would be worth it."

Some, though, said they didn't need or want any extra services. Caz Zinniak, who lives in an unincorporated area outside Northbrook, said he didn't mind walking his dog on the edge of the street instead of a sidewalk.

Zinniak found the rest of the status quo to be equally acceptable. The roads are well-maintained, the garbage is always picked up and the Cook County sheriff provides good service to the tranquil neighborhood, he said.



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