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Board erupts over forest preserve homes' low rents
COOK COUNTY: Some commissioners want to collect market value for rental properties

Thursday, May 06, 2004
The Times of Northwest Indiana

The agenda, usually routine, was at the center of a big stir Wednesday at the Cook County Forest Preserve Board meeting.

The uproar began when Commissioner Forrest Claypool asked why homes located in, and owned by the forest preserves, are rented so cheaply to employees.

Claypool and four other commissioners wanted an immediate study to determine the true market value of the homes, a move he believed could save taxpayers' money.

But the agenda, prepared in advance by President John Stroger's staff, stated the sponsors wanted the matter discussed by the finance committee.

Over Claypool's objections, but with Stroger's support, the board voted 10-5 to send the request to that committee.

Later, during the contentious meeting, Commissioner Michael Quigley attempted to introduce a new land policy that would reaffirm the board's commitment to protect the natural land and resources within the district's 68,000 acres. Quigley failed to get the issue before the board Wednesday.

Stroger said the item was submitted too late to be included on the agenda.

Claypool, a Chicago Democrat, alleged that well-connected individuals are given primary access to the homes, and rent is determined on a flat scale well below market value. Rent for three and four bedroom houses are $450 or $225 per month, depending on whether the house is free standing or connected to another forest preserve facility. According to Claypool, charging market rent would increase forest preserve revenue and decrease the burden on other taxpayers.

"We have a resource that really belongs to the taxpayers being given out to employees, and I think that's wrong," Claypool said.

Some officials and other board members first wanted a study about the potential impact of a new rent scale.

"One of the reasons we would like this to go to committee is this calls for the elimination of a system that right now I think helps the taxpayers and into one that may hurt them," said Robert Kinchen, chief attorney for the forest preserve district. He said the houses are not taxed, but would be if the county were to collect the going rate for rentals.

Taxpayers, he said, could actually end up paying more in this situation.

The board sent the matter to the finance committee for further study, over the objections of commissioners Claypool, Quigley, Earlean Collins, Anthony Peraica, and Larry Suffredin. They argued sending it to the committee did not accomplish anything and any changes to the rent structure would have to be board approved anyway.

"You will only further delay the process by sending it to committee," Claypool said.

Meanwhile Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, faced a delay of his own, as the introduction of a land-use policy he has been working on for more than a month was postponed until the next meeting.

Quigley wants a formal board policy for handling requests to use forest preserve land. He favors prohibiting all uses that do not fall within the bounds of passive, natural recreation. Acceptable uses include hiking, birding and bicycling, but not the construction of baseball and soccer fields, which Quigley said is better suited to local park districts. Other commissioners agreed the issue is important but defined "proper use" differently.

"We are going to have to fight to pass this," Suffredin said after the meeting, expressing his disappointment that Stroger refused to allow a discussion. "Procedurally, the president was within his rights, and this was a battle we couldn't win. This is too serious an issue to be remembered just for that. I think when we come back next meeting, we'll be able to move this forward.''

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