Future of Forest Park TB District property remains uncertain

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By SETH STERN

Barring a veto from the governor, the Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District (TB District) will soon be a thing of the past, with legislation calling for its dissolution now having passed through both houses of the Illinois legislature.

While proponents of the legislation are touting the elimination of taxation to fund what they see as an unnecessary government agency, the future of the district's properties, including its Forest Park headquarters at 7556 Jackson Blvd. is uncertain. Oak Park Sen. Don Harmon (D-39), the sponsor of the legislation to eliminate the district and merge TB treatment into Cook County's Department of Public Health, has said that he would like to see the buildings remain open as a treatment center for TB and other respiratory diseases.

Stephen A. Martin, chief operating officer of the Department of Public Health, agrees.

"You don't necessarily want TB patients mixing with others within the system. You don't want it to spread, so a separation must be there," he said, noting that the county's existing facilities are "bursting at the seams" and would not necessarily have room to support an influx of TB patients.

Despite a 32 percent increase in local TB cases last year, the TB district still only treats about 120 active cases. The 2,500 or so latent TB cases in the county are typically treated through "direct observed therapy," or traveling nurses who visit patients at home to ensure that they are taking their medicine. The district also tests about 8,000 patients for TB each year.

Though these numbers may not be overwhelming, Martin said that TB is still a serious threat, and is only under control because of the continued effort to keep it that way.

"You need to take a step back and you must not negate the importance of TB control and care…It's a communicable disease that's priority number one as far as public control," said Martin, who has also served on the TB district's board of directors since 2005.

Others, however, feel that the future of the district's properties should be up for debate.

"There has not been a case presented that there is reason to maintain separate health facilities [for TB treatment]," said Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation, a non-partisan government research organization which has been pushing for the closing of the district for over three years.

The recent legislation allows the county a year to develop a transition plan for the dissolution of the district. It requires that the district's unused land be transferred to the Cook County Forest Preserve, but leaves the destiny of the existing buildings in the county board's hands.

Village of FP interested in land

County Commissioner Tony Peraica, who led a previous push to close the district in 2004, agreed with Msall, calling for the county board to leave its options open when evaluating the future of the TB buildings.

"We don't need [the TB buildings] because patients who have TB are treated on an outpatient basis…20 percent of the space in these facilities is used, and 80 percent is unused," he said.

Though he said some of the land could be used by the public health system, he hoped at least some of it could be sold to help offset any additional taxation that might result from the merging of TB treatment into the county system. The need for additional taxation for TB treatment should also be postponed by the nearly $10 million surplus that the county will inherit from the TB district.

Peraica mentioned that the Village of Forest Park had enquired about the possibility of purchasing the land for the relocation of village hall.

"We'd love to have a crack at it," said Village Administrator Michael Sturino, acknowledging that he had spoken to Peraica in the past about his interest in the land.

"We're very interested in the long-term development of Desplaines Avenue. It's clearly a gateway to Madison Street and the community," he said.

Sturino acknowledged that the land has potential as a site for a new village hall, but said that other redevelopment options could also be explored if the land were to become available.

Mayor Anthony Calderone also expressed interest in the property, noting that the current village hall at 517 Desplaines Ave. is "bursting at the seams." Still, he said that he has received no word on whether there is a chance that the land will become available.

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