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Appraising houses on forest land spurs debate

Wednesday, May 12, 2004
Pioneer Press

Bitter wrangling that threatened passage of this year's budget for Cook County government is continuing at the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

The 17 Cook County Board members also serve as commissioners of the Forest Preserve District.

At issue this time is a proposal by Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, D-12th, to obtain appraisals on houses located on Forest Preserve land that are rented to district employees at bargain-basement prices. The proposal is before the board's Finance Committee following a contentious board meeting last week.

Claypool's resolution came after a Chicago Sun-Times article detailing how some of the homes, which would bring rentals of $2,000 on the open real estate market, are being leased to employees for $450 per month. Some of the employees have made substantial contributions to Cook County Board President John Stroger's campaign fund, according to the Sun-Times.

Claypool asked for immediate consideration of the resolution.

"The taxpayers have been getting a hosing under this system," he told the board.

But Stroger countered with information from the law department that said the Forest Preserve homes are off the property-tax rolls, and renting them at market prices would put them back on and cost the county much more at current property tax rates.

Commissioner Gregg Goslin, R-14th, a co-sponsor of Claypool's proposal, said that in light of the legal opinion, the issue needs more study.

"If we think the taxpayers are getting a hosing now, wait 'til these things go onto the tax rolls. If we make a mistake, that would be wrong," he said.

Goslin voted with Stroger, who succeeded in getting the matter referred to the Finance Committee for further study.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-13th, said he supports a re-evaluation of the board's policy for rental of the homes.

"People need to understand that we didn't go out and buy these houses," Suffredin said. "We got them because they were on land we acquired to expand the forest preserves."

Suffredin noted that some of the homes have been given to night-security personnel or individuals who perform other functions for the district.

The Forest Preserve Board meeting ended in a fiery shouting match between Stroger and Commissioner Mike Quigley, D-10th, after Stroger blocked Quigley's ordinance to strengthen Forest Preserve land-use policy.

Evidence of the continued acrimony between Stroger and younger, reform-minded commissioners came when the president said a few of the commissioners were going back to the Washington-Vrdolyak days. It was a reference to the early 1980s when Harold Washington, Chicago's first African-American mayor, was in constant battle with a City Council majority bloc headed by Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak.

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