527% tax boost revives criticism of TB District

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By SETH STERN

In a move that is sure to revive controversy over the necessity of its existence, the Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District has raised its tax levy by 527 percent for 2006.

In 2005, the vast majority of the district's $3.5 million budget was paid for by funds acquired through the sale of its Hinsdale facility.

Though board President Ray McDonald could not be reached for comment for this story, he told the Review in November that the district planned to ask taxpayers to pay for its operating budget on alternate years only.

He said that the district would return to its 2005 levy in 2007, and then once again increase its levy in 2008.

While the percentage of the tax increase contemplated is large, the impact on property tax payers is limited because of the very small tax rate the increase is hinged on.

The debate on the agency's future is of particular interest in Forest Park as one of the district's primary clinics has long been located at Desplaines Avenue and Jackson Boulevard.

Still, longtime critics of the district are not satisfied. "This is a very cynical move to tax the residents of suburban Cook County in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable " maintaining a suburban TB district," said Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica.

Peraica noted that the district had not agreed to decrease its tax levy even in alternate years until it became the object of criticism by activists, politicians and media outlets after a report from the Civic Federation, a private organization, criticized the district for maintaining its tax levy despite a $9 million surplus.

"The Civic Federation is disappointed and remains unconvinced of the necessity of any property tax levy for this outdated unit of government at a time when legitimate local governments are struggling to balance their budget," said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.

Msall said he was unaware of the district's plans to increase its levy on alternate years only. "We again call on the county board and President (John) Stroger to eliminate the district by folding it into county health services."

Peraica, who is challenging Stroger for the county presidency in 2006, accused Stroger of using the district as an avenue for patronage hiring. Stroger has in the past supported the abolition of the district.

McDonald also recently discussed the prospect of expanding the district to include services for other respiratory diseases besides tuberculosis, an idea that did nothing to appease Msall.

"Suburban Cook County residents should not be forced to pay while unelected members of this board continue to brainstorm ideas for how to justify their tax increases," he said.

Though tuberculosis has been on a downslide for several years, the district has experienced an increase in 2005, treating over 100 new active cases so far this year. In 2004, the district treated only 62 cases. Officials have attributed the increase to a resurgence in immigration and the relocation of immigrant populations from the city to the suburbs.

Still, Msall said, Cook County is the only governing body in the state that still retains a tuberculosis district separate from its general health services. A similar service in Chicago, he said, was abolished over 30 years ago.

McDonald has acknowledged that if the healthcare system were formed today it would not include a separate tuberculosis district, but has said that at the present time it is financially impractical to merge the district into the county health department, which is dealing with its own budget problems.

The district's Forest Park facility is located at 7556 Jackson Blvd. It also operates facilities in Desplaines and in Harvey.

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