House bill would merge Cook County forest preserve police with county sheriff

House bill would merge Cook County forest preserve police with county sheriff

A bill in the Illinois House seeks to transfer policing authority from the Cook County Forest Preserve District to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, potentially saving taxpayers millions.

Across Illinois, excessive and inefficient local government bodies waste scarce taxpayer dollars. House Bill 2297, introduced by state Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, could potentially save Cook County taxpayers millions through cost-saving consolidation.

Currently, the Cook County Forest Preserve District Board has the authority to appoint and maintain a separate police force to oversee the territory of forest preserves. HB 2297 would transfer that authority to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, potentially generating millions in taxpayer savings, which could free up funds for other district priorities.

Law enforcement accounts for nearly 17 percent of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, or FPDCC, budget – with budgeted department expenditures for fiscal year 2019 totaling $10.6 million. Like most local taxing bodies, FPDCC mainly collects its revenue through property taxes.

“Transferring the duties of the forest preserve police to the sheriff will not only better protect people visiting forest preserves, but will save millions of taxpayer dollars,” Crespo said in a statement.

In October 2017, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart recommended the elimination of the Forest Preserve police department, estimating $9.5 million in savings at the time. Dart said the sheriff’s office could “assume the responsibilities of the Forest Preserve Police Department without the need for increased staffing or resources.” The sheriff’s office “already conduct[s] all investigative work for the Forest Preserve Police,” Dart said.

Critics of eliminating the Forest Preserve District police contend that officers are specially trained in conservation matters and fulfill similar duties as park rangers. But transferring policing duties to the county would free up funds the district could use to fund park ranger services and other priorities – while providing savings to taxpayers.

Calls to dissolve the district’s police force have resurfaced over the years, and have recently heightened in the wake of a June 2018 viral video showing a man harassing a women over her Puerto Rican flag T-shirt, while a forest preserve police officer stood by and did not intervene. The officer later resigned, and forest preserve officials said the incident should not reflect poorly on the entire department.

Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of government, more than any other state in the nation. Many of those layers are redundant and costly to maintain, which drives up residents’ property tax bills. “It is simply unacceptable that as families struggle with skyrocketing property taxes, Cook County government is spending millions on an ineffective and duplicative police force,” Crespo said.

Transferring the forest preserve’s policing authority to the Cook County sheriff could save local taxpayers millions – without diminishing public safety services. State lawmakers should send HB 2297 to the governor’s desk, and continue reforms that make government services more efficient while saving tax dollars.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!