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Report: Unincorporated areas a 'financial burden' to Cook County

Thursday, September 22, 2016
Daily Southtown
by Susan DeMar Lafferty

Unincorporated areas of Cook County are a "financial burden" to the county, according Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, which issued a 200-page independent report Thursday to address those "inequities."

According to the report, Cook County spends nearly $43 million annually to serve 126,034 residents in unincorporated areas — 2.4 percent of its total population — and receives $24 million in revenue.

The county is mandated by the state to serve those areas, and Msall said it is "time to end that outdated, unnecessary loophole" that causes incorporated residents to subsidize those in the unincorporated areas.

Unincorporated areas comprise approximately 13.1 percent, or 125.8 square miles, of land area in Cook County, the report said.

Townships with the largest percentage of unincorporated populations in southern Cook include Lemont, Palos, Orland and Bremen townships. Higher percentages are seen in northern Cook's Maine, Northfield and Leyden townships.

Since most areas are scattered throughout the townships, that forces the county to provide a "hodgepodge" of services, creating a public health and safety issue due to a lack of infrastructure and quality housing, substandard water and crime, Msall said.

The federation supports a goal of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to eventually eliminate such areas, and it expanded on a report it did in 2014 which examined unincorporated areas. It now lays out various strategies, "to address the inefficiencies and reduce the subsidies," Msall said.

It recommends that short- and long- term goals be set to require annexation by a specific future date. It would require a resident or a developer who seeks to rezone unincorporated land to first file an annexation petition. To accomplish this, the county would have to establish boundary agreements with the municipalities, and may even have to seek changes in state law.

The report will be shared with County Board members and municipal leaders, Msall said. The county currently has $2.5 million in its budget to incentivize municipalities that want to annex land, he said, adding that it is "not enough."

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison of District 17 — which includes Lemont, Palos, Orland and Bremen — said he is against forced annexation, but if people are willing to annex it could be good to get them off the county's dole.

"There are certainly efficiencies to be had," he said, noting that municipalities can provide quicker services when it comes to such things as police, emergency responders and snow plows.

He had yet to see the report, but said it is a "timely conversation," and annexation has been talked about in some areas.

"There are communities where residents feel that, given current circumstances, they may be better off in a municipality," Morrison said.

Lemont, which has a lot of unincorporated territory, wants to have that land annexed into the village, Lemont Mayor Brian Reaves said in an email response.

"We look forward to working with anyone who shares that same desire. While the specifics about running water/sewer and the costs of development can only be answered on a case by case basis, I will say that Lemont has had nothing but successful annexations and developments of all different shapes and sizes," he wrote.

Local municipal officials said they met with federation members and discussed this issue in 2014.

Oak Forest City Administrator Troy Ishler, and Karie Friling, Orland Park's director of development services both said they are concerned about the financial impact on their towns.

"Just because the county wants to eliminate its expenses doesn't mean we should take on extraordinary expenses " to provide water and sewer services to those areas, Ishler said.

Developers used to install the infrastructure as they annexed large parcels, but the remaining small in-fill lots are more challenging, he said.

Friling said city officials would have to do a cost-benefit analysis to determine if annexation was in their best financial interest.

"We're not against it. We're willing to be part of the discussion, but it's a complicated puzzle," she said, noting that building codes are stricter in the village than in the county.

"People choose to live in unincorporated areas for a reason," she said.

Currently, state law only allows a municipality to forcibly annex property that is less than 60 acres and contiguous on all sides to a municipality, Friling said.

The report includes detailed maps of all townships and is the first time there has been a comprehensive look at the unincorporated population, Msall said.

According to the report:

•-In Lemont Township, 5,170, or 24.5 percent of its 21,116 residents live in unincorporated areas scattered throughout the township, mostly single-family residential subdivisions, forest preserves, agricultural land and golf courses.

•In Palos Township, 5,961, or 10.percent, of its 54,615 residents live in an unincorporated areas scattered throughout the southeast and southwest portions of the township, adjacent to the municipalities of Palos Park, Palos Heights and Orland Park.

•Orland Township has 5.4 percent, or 5,226 of its 97,558 residents in an unincorporated areas, mostly single-family homes, forest preserves and smaller pockets of undeveloped, residential and industrial land.

•Within Rich Township, 3.5 percent or, 2,705 of its 76,727 residents live in an unincorporated areas, scattered throughout in residential, forest preserves, farmland and recreational space.

•Bloom Township has 2,324, or 2.6 percent, of its 90,922 residents in an unincorporated areas that include single-family residential areas, a mobile home park, farmland, forest preserves, recreational land and small pockets of with very few homes or development.

•In Worth Township, 3,886, or 2.5 percent, of its 152,633 residents are unincorporated, in four residential areas, plus four cemeteries and a golf course.

•Bremen Township has 2,194 residents in unincorporated areas, or 2 percent of its 110,118 residents. These are primarily single-family residential neighborhoods, but the township also includes the Cook County Oak Forest Hospital campus.

•Thornton Township has the fewest, with 861 unincorporated residents, or 0.5 percent of its 169,326 people, mainly in two residential areas in the eastern portion.

The bulk of Cook County's $42.9 million in expenses to these areas are for the Sheriff's Office, at $37 million; with building and zoning services costing $4.4 million, according to the report. Income tax revenue from those living in unincorporated areas accounts for nearly $12 million in revenue, with $3.7 million generated by building and zoning fees.

Annexation would result in a property tax increase for most, but not all areas, the report said.

The report includes recommendations on how the county could better manage its unincorporated areas, work with local towns to annex them, and impose taxes and fees on unincorporated residents to reduce the cost to the county.

It would require that the County Board get an annual report on the status of unincorporated areas, so it can track its spending and efforts being made to annex.

It recommended that the county create a new position for a liaison who would work between the Cook County board and unincorporated residents and businesses to address any issues they have, and facilitate municipal boundary agreements and annexations.

The county should require these areas to be within the jurisdiction of a fire protection district, and consolidate or privatize its 18 local sanitary districts, which cover very limited areas, the report said.

Realizing that it will take several years to accomplish annexation, the county could impose a number of fees in the meantime to ease its costs and help municipalities pay for services.

The Civic Federation recommended charging municipalities an "incident response fee" when it sends its first responders to assist them; increasing the license fees for vehicles in unincorporated areas; imposing a real estate transfer tax on buyers of unincorporated property to incentivize them to annex; paying municipalities to provide police protection in unincorporated areas; and creating special service areas in which unincorporated residents would pay for infrastructure improvements.

"If you're going to tax these (unincorporated) residents, they will start running to municipalities," Ishler said. "If you think about it, if it is worth annexing, someone would have tried it. Money dictates in the end."

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