April 11, 2012
In return for watching over District land and serving as a deterrent to crime or misuse, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County rents housing on its property to employees at drastically discounted rates through its Resident Watchmen Program. On October 28, 2011, the District announced plans to strengthen the program by implementing basic requirements for renters and increasing the fee structure of rental properties. The new fee structure makes rental properties available between 40% and 60% of fair market rent based on data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At the April 4, 2012 meeting of the Forest Preserve District Finance Committee, the Forest Preserve Board of Commissioners approved the ordinance amendment, Section 1-9-3 – Fees and Occupancy of District Lands, outlining the new occupancy fee structure and several related changes. Previously, occupancy fees were $240 for residences attached or adjacent to a district facility; however, the amendment establishes a distinction between the two types of residences and creates different fees for each residence type. The table below compares the original occupancy fees to the amended fees.
Other changes to the Resident Watchmen Program include:
- Occupancy agreements and renewals will be subject to approval every two years. Fee increases based on the Consumer Price Index will be incorporated into the new or renewed agreements.
- The Housing Committee will conduct at least one inspection of each residence annually. If deemed necessary, random inspections will be permitted. Previously, the Housing Committee only “periodically review[ed]” residences.
- Employees who retire or resign have a maximum of 60 days after their last day of employment to vacate their residence. The original ordinance allowed a maximum of 30 days.
- Widows/widowers of employees have a maximum of six months after the employee’s death to vacate their residence. The original ordinance allowed a maximum of one year.
- Occupancy policies and procedures will be documented in the Resident Watchmen Program Manual.
- The Housing Committee will monitor all the duties and responsibilities of the resident watchmen as stated in the Occupancy Agreement.
The Civic Federation supports the approved changes to the Fees and Occupancy of District Lands ordinance. The changes demonstrate steps towards modernization of the Resident Watchmen Program as the District aligns occupancy fees closer to market rates and plans to impose future fee increases according to the Consumer Price Index.
At the same time, the Civic Federation maintains its recommendation as stated in its FY2012 budget analysis for the Forest Preserve District for enhanced transparency of the Resident Watchmen Program in the District’s annual budget documents. The FY2012 proposed budget document provided few details of this rental subsidy program. The District should include a narrative description of the program within its budget document and report performance metrics on the value of the subsidy it is providing in relation to the services it is receiving. It should also benchmark its level of subsidy to other governmental organizations with similar programs. These steps will allow an evaluation of the effectiveness of the subsidy. The rental subsidy is a form of employee compensation and a fiscal policy of the District that should be completely transparent to the public.