Unincorporated Cook County 2016: Recommendations
Cook County will likely continue to provide municipal-type services to unincorporated areas of Cook County for many years to come. However, it should develop and formally adopt a multi-year plan to eventually eliminate all unincorporated areas. To further those goals, the Civic Federation offers the following general, planning and revenue recommendations as part of its report, Unincorporated Cook County: A Profile of Unincorporated Areas in Cook County and Recommendations to Facilitate Incorporation:
For more information on the Federation's 2016 Unincoporated Cook County report, please click here.
For detialed profiles of townships containing unincorporated areas in Cook County, please click here.
Consolidate or Privatize Sanitary Districts
The general recommendations listed below were developed based on information gathered from interviews conducted by the Civic Federation and research on practices implemented by other counties.
Cook County should create a new position under the Offices of the President of Cook County that would serve as a liaison between the Cook County Board of Commissioners, unincorporated residents, businesses and stakeholders. Unincorporated Cook County residents, businesses and stakeholders currently lack a primary point of contact with whom to address various issues related to the unincorporated areas, such as zoning, inspections and other matters that impact those individuals. The liaison would be responsible for facilitating discussions amongst municipalities and unincorporated stakeholders on various matters related to the unincorporated areas, such as municipal boundary agreements, annexation discussions and attending town hall meetings. The liaison would also be responsible for formulating a recommendation in County rezoning matters as to whether the rezoning applicant had made good faith efforts to seek municipal annexation of the area to be rezoned (see related recommendation below). Finally, the liaison would be responsible for collecting and summarizing data that would be included in the previous recommendation that an annual report be prepared on the unincorporated areas. The County ordinance establishing this new position should include the requirement that other countywide elected officials provide the necessary information to the liaison in order for the annual report on the unincorporated areas to include complete information.
Cook County provides a number of municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas. These municipal-type services generally include policing, highway road services, building and zoning services, liquor control and animal control in addition to other departments that provide administrative support indirectly. These municipal-type services are funded partly through taxpayer dollars that are generated countywide. Current Cook County budgeting and accounting practices do not clearly delineate between the revenues and expenditures associated with delivering the municipal-type services that are specific to the unincorporated areas of the County.
Cook County should establish a municipal services fund to fully account for the costs associated with the delivery of municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas and make it easier for policymakers and the public to identify the size of the countywide taxpayer subsidy each year, similar to the Cook County Health Fund. Municipal services fund data should be updated annually as part of the budget process to ensure that the costs associated with providing municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas match the revenues generated from within the unincorporated areas.
Cook County should annually prepare a report on the unincorporated areas of the county. This report would utilize information from the municipal services fund to:
- Detail the revenues and expenses associated with providing municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas;
- Calculate the cost of the County’s annual subsidy to unincorporated areas;
- Provide information on police incident reports; and
- Report building code inspection data by township, not just in the aggregate (i.e., permits, citations, door tags issued, number of follow-up inspections and number of vacant properties).
This report would provide Cook County policymakers and the taxpaying public with complete information on the full cost of providing services to unincorporated areas as well as data on the nature and quantity of the primary services provided to those areas.
Cook County should create and maintain a webpage that will provide information to unincorporated residents, businesses and other interested parties on annexation and related issues. The webpage should include:
- Frequently asked questions surrounding annexation;
- An up-to-date list of annexation activity within the county;
- A list of unincorporated areas;
- Current zoning laws in the unincorporated areas; and
- The annual report on unincorporated areas.
Cook County should work with local elected officials, the Illinois State Fire Marshall and the Illinois General Assembly to change current state statute to require all unincorporated areas in urbanized counties to be within the boundaries of a fire protection provider by a certain future date. Current state statute allows for the Illinois State Fire Marshall to assign unincorporated areas not within the boundaries of a fire protection boundary upon written request from the registered voters or property owners of the unincorporated areas. However, the provider of fire protection services has no remedy for collecting the annual payment. Based on Civic Federation interviews with municipal officials this creates a system of “free-riders” in certain unincorporated areas who may ultimately benefit from fire protection services in times of emergency without paying for those services.
There are approximately 18 individual local government sanitary districts that provide sanitary sewer services, and in some instances potable water, to the unincorporated areas of Cook County. These single-purpose special districts often lack professional expertise and often cover a very limited geographic area.
With the majority of the trustees of the districts being appointed and confirmed by the Cook County President and Commissioners, the Federation believes that there are efficiencies to be gained by consolidating these sanitary districts with neighboring municipalities or the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, or possibly privatizing the districts with the goal of reducing costs and improving services.
The following planning recommendations were developed with the goal of improving and ultimately preparing the unincorporated areas for future annexation. These recommendations will require local elected officials and the Illinois General Assembly, as well as other stakeholders to work together on planning-related matters to better prepare the unincorporated areas for future annexation.
The current annexation laws in the State of Illinois have resulted in the creation of internal and external unincorporated enclaves. Internal enclaves are surrounded by one municipality and external enclaves are bordered by two or more municipalities. The delivery of municipal-type services by Cook County to these scattered unincorporated areas is both inefficient and inequitable.
Cook County should work with local elected officials and the Illinois General Assembly to require unincorporated areas in Cook County to be annexed by a neighboring municipality by certain future date. As a short-term goal the County should work with municipalities, townships and special districts to eliminate all unincorporated areas with a population of fewer than 10 residents. There should be a long-term goal of the elimination of all other unincorporated areas. As a long-term goal, the portions of the Cook County forest preserves that are currently unincorporated should be incorporated by a neighboring municipality, but should continue to be managed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Cook County should amend the Cook County Zoning Ordinance to require residents, developers and other stakeholders that seek to rezone parcels in unincorporated Cook County to demonstrate as a requirement in rezoning applications that good faith efforts have been made to achieve annexation and rezoning of the parcel for which County rezoning is sought by a contiguous municipality (if there are any) and such annexation and rezoning request has not been successful despite such good faith efforts. If there are multiple contiguous municipalities, the good faith efforts should be required to be made with the municipality which has included the land to be rezoned in a boundary agreement or with a municipality which has included the subject land in a Comprehensive Plan (in the absence of a controlling boundary agreement).
Cook County should work with its internal Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to identify and catalog a comprehensive list of publicly owned land and facilities. This inventory of publicly owned land and facilities will include state, county and federal assets. These publicly owned assets could then be used to identify potential future development or other purposes, such as stormwater detention ponds or other matters that would be beneficial to local governments adjacent to these areas.
The original matching grant fund for infrastructure improvements in the unincorporated areas of Cook County totaled $5 million. However, due to budgetary constraints the County reduced this amount by $2.5 million in FY2015. The County’s unincorporated infrastructure matching grant fund available to municipalities developing incorporation plans should be annually authorized. The County should increase this amount if additional resources are made available in order to assist municipalities with plans to annex the unincorporated areas countywide.
The land use and building regulations imposed by Cook County in the unincorporated areas are often in conflict with the land use and building regulations imposed by adjacent municipalities. In addition, the unincorporated areas vary in size, density, housing stock, and utilities and amenities provided, among other factors. Because of the unique characteristics of the unincorporated areas within the County, it is essential that stakeholders in each region of the County develop sub-regional plans that align with the goals of municipalities within that particular region.
The Federation recommends that Cook County create sub-regional planning committees that will include representatives of the County, municipalities, townships and special districts in order to bring all stakeholders together to focus on coordinated planning, building and zoning regulations in the unincorporated areas. The committee members would not receive compensation. However, any additional expertise should be funded by revenues generated from within the unincorporated areas or the County’s matching infrastructure grant.
Unincorporated areas are often adjacent to two or more municipalities. These unincorporated areas may be annexed by more than one municipality, which may cause conflict among adjacent municipalities who may also seek future annexation of these unincorporated areas. Through the establishment of municipal boundary agreements two or more municipalities may agree upon future municipal boundaries and areas of planning authority by ensuring the future development of the unincorporated areas is consistent with municipal comprehensive plans. This may also reduce the potential for future confrontations between municipalities regarding annexation.
The Federation recommends that all municipalities develop boundary annexation agreements with neighboring municipalities when there is an unincorporated area adjacent to two or more municipalities.Cook County officials could function as facilitators and provide financial and professional assistance in developing plans for these unincorporated areas.
According to Civic Federation calculations Cook County spends approximately $42.9 million in expenses related to the delivery of municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas and only generates nearly $24.0 million in revenues from the unincorporated areas. In sum, all Cook County taxpayers are effectively paying an $18.9 million subsidy to cover municipal-type services for residents of unincorporated areas, even as most also pay taxes for their own municipal services.
Cook County will most likely continue to provide municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas for a number of years. In an effort to eliminate the subsidy paid by taxpayers who reside in municipalities, the Federation offers the following revenue recommendations the County could explore in reducing the subsidy and having unincorporated residents pay the full cost of the municipal-type services provided by Cook County. These revenues should also be used for planning and other professional services related to the unincorporated areas of the county. Some of the following recommendations may require changes to current state law. However, many revenue recommendations can be implemented through Cook County’s home rule authority.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department is the primary first-responder for police matters in the unincorporated areas of Cook County.
Municipal and county governments throughout the United States have implemented incident response fees on individuals who live outside of their jurisdiction in an effort reduce the tax burden on local residents and recoup the costs of responding to incidents. Currently there are approximately 15 municipalities and fire protection districts within Cook County that impose incident response fees.
As a home rule county, Cook County should explore the feasibility of imposing incident response fees on non-Cook County residents when the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department attends to calls for service within Cook County. Similarly, if a municipal police department is contracted to provide police services by a township to the unincorporated areas of a township, it too should impose an incident response fee on people from outside the jurisdiction of the township.
Cook County currently imposes an annual license fee on motor vehicles that are registered within the unincorporated areas of Cook County. The rate of the annual home rule wheel tax varies from $80 to $230 depending on the vehicle type. This Cook County home rule tax generated $3.8 million in revenue in FY2014. The revenue generated from the wheel tax is deposited into the Cook County Public Safety Fund, but is not dedicated specifically to the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department patrols of the unincorporated areas of Cook County.
Cook County should annually evaluate the wheel tax as part of the budget process. Any increases in the wheel tax should be tied to the costs associated with delivering municipal-type services in the unincorporated areas of the County.
Cook County currently imposes a real estate transfer tax on all transactions countywide at the rate of $0.25 per $500 of the transfer price which is paid by the seller.
Cook County should explore imposing a real estate transfer tax on buyers in unincorporated areas. Future residents of the unincorporated areas are perpetuating the unincorporated areas’ existence and should bear the burden of helping to cover the cost of municipal-type services provided by the County. Additionally, such a tax may incentivize current residents who want to sell their properties to become incorporated so that their property does not become less desirable to purchase because of the real estate transfer tax. This may require a change in state and local legislation.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department is currently the primary first responders for police matters in the unincorporated areas. As mentioned previously, the current policing strategy of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department is inefficient, inequitable and the most costly municipal-type service provided by Cook County to the unincorporated areas at approximately $37.8 million annually.
Cook County should work with municipal officials to form intergovernmental agreements with municipalities to be the primary first-responders for police matters in the unincorporated areas. The amount of the fee determined in the intergovernmental agreement should be fixed at an amount that would compensate for the full cost of the salary, benefits, patrol cars and other relevant expenses required for all police officers utilized in this agreement. This would eliminate the subsidy provided by countywide taxpayers with the ultimate goal of removing Cook County from providing municipal-type police services to the unincorporated areas.
Cook County should work with the appropriate local, state and federal agencies to explore establishing an annual fee on property owners in the unincorporated areas to fund stormwater and other drainage system improvements. This fee would allow the County to make stormwater and drainage improvements in the unincorporated areas. The infrastructure improvements made by the County would improve stormwater management and may make the unincorporated areas more appealing to municipalities for future annexation. The fee could be based on the current land use of the unincorporated parcel. The implementation of this fee may require a change in current state law.
Cook County should explore establishing an annual fee for police protection on the property owners in the unincorporated areas for the delivery of municipal-type police services. The revenue generated from this annual fee should be used by the County to pay for the costs associated with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office providing municipal-type police services to the unincorporated areas. Municipal-type police services provided by Cook County to the unincorporated areas is the most expensive municipal-type service provided the County at approximately $37.6 million. The fee could be based on the current land use of the unincorporated parcel. The implementation of this fee may require a change in current state law.
Cook County should work with township officials, other local elected officials, residents and businesses to explore the creation of tax increment financing (TIF) districts within townships to promote economic development and fund infrastructure improvements within certain unincorporated areas. Townships located in Cook County may establish a TIF district if the county adopts an ordinance approving the township’s redevelopment plan.
In property tax TIF districts, the total equalized assessed value (EAV) within the district at the time of creation is measured and frozen. Then, revenues generated from the incremental growth in property taxes over the frozen baseline amount are used to pay for redevelopment costs or infrastructure improvements. Once a development project is completed and has been paid for, the TIF district is dissolved and the tax base is returned to full use by all eligible taxing bodies. In Illinois, TIF is authorized for a period of up to 23 years, with the possibility of renewal for an additional 12 years.
Cook County should work with local elected officials, residents and businesses to explore the creation of special service areas (SSAs) in certain unincorporated areas to provide special services, such as police protection or fund infrastructure improvements. This financing tool allows for local governments to establish the districts to provide special services or infrastructure improvements without issuing debt or levying a tax on the entire jurisdiction. Special service areas may be established within a contiguous areas within a municipality or county in which government services are provided to above the basic level of services already provided by that government body. The special service areas (SSAs) primary funding source is property taxes. The amount of the special assessment should be set at an amount that would fully fund the municipal-type services and improvements that would enhance the quality of life for residents of the unincorporated areas.