Cook County, Incorporated

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wants to charge the 100,000 residents of unincorporated areas a $150-per-household fee, to account for the fact that they alone use services paid for by entire county.

For example, the sheriff’s department provides police protection to dozens of bits of land that never managed to join a city or a village.

There’s a rectangular patch on the south side that’s completely surrounded by the Beverly neighborhood, but isn’t part of Chicago. So the sheriff’s police have to drive through Chicago to get there. Patrolling 51 square miles of orphaned turf, stretching from Barrington to Steger, is a lot more expensive than patrolling a contiguous 51-square-mile village.

Facing objections from county board members, Preckwinkle decided instead to "study" the issue, and instead pay for police protection with $5.5 million in gasoline tax money that was supposed to repave suburban roads.

Instead of charging them more money, how about forcing them to incorporate? When suburbia began spreading across Cook County after World War II, there was no central authority to supervise the growth of new municipalities such as Sauk Village and Country Club Hills. As a result, there are bits of no-man’s-land remaining between Des Plaines and Glenview, or Elk Grove Village and Schaumburg, as you can see on this map.

Preckwinkle has proposed this solution. The Civic Federation estimates it could save taxpayers $54.7 million a year. But here’s the rub, according to a Sun-Times editorial:

As once-tiny suburban communities grew, their planners boosted their bottom lines by annexing tax-generating properties — shopping centers, auto dealerships, industrial parks, etc. Areas with high-density housing and no businesses — long seen as tax losers — tended to be left out. Because the county building code has not been as strong as those in some municipalities, construction has been of lower quality. And unincorporated areas often lack sewers, curbs and gutters that meet municipal codes.

The county doesn’t have tax-increment financing district powers to upgrade these areas. But for a suburban village or city to annex them would in essence be asking their residents to pay higher taxes, which would be a tough sell.

One of the most important challenges for 21st Century elected officials is getting rid of governments that made sense in the 19th Century (townships) or the 20th Century (unincorporated Cook County), but are now tax-sucking parasites. Cook County is an urban county, the second-largest in the United States. It makes no sense that its residents would not live in cities. We may have to accept a short-term fee or tax hike to pay these suburban communities to take over all this extra land we have lying around. But it’s better than paying for it forever.

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