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County commissioner accuses Preckwinkle of burying his cemetery idea

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle opposes a proposal to turn a five-acre stretch of the county’s old Oak Forest Hospital site into a cemetery for the poor.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, has floated what he calls a cost-saving plan for the cash-strapped county government to operate a cemetery at the site — now county forest preserve land — just west of an old cemetery the county ran up until the 1970s.

But Wednesday, Preckwinkle made it clear she’s against it.

“No, I don’t support it,” Preckwinkle said during an unrelated news conference Wednesday.

“[F]irst and foremost, this is no longer our land. This land was given to the forest preserve district,” Preckwinkle told reporters. “The forest preserve district doesn’t run cemeteries, it’s an organization that is responsible for conservation and preservation of our natural resources and providing recreational activities.”

A clearly miffed Fritchey responded on Wednesday: “We can very easily amend the forest preserve mission to allow for a publicly funded cemetery,” said Fritchey, who like the other 16 commissioners and Preckwinkle do double-duty as forest preserve commissioners. “Or move it a half block away,” he said, referring to county land — also part of the former hospital campus — but not in the forest preserve.

Preckwinkle indicated discussions on the cemetery plan would continue.

“This is something being thrashed out with the commissioner and our staff and I’m sure more details will come out later,” she said.

Fritchey said he feels as though Preckwinkle — who has no vote on the board but plenty of political muscle — has made up her mind without the matter being fully debated and discussed.

“Rather than work with me to explore this possible proposal, the administration has tried to shoot it down before the ink was even dry on my resolution,” he told the Sun-Times.

On Tuesday when Fritchey’s proposal came up for a possible vote during the County Board meeting, he opted to delay it, complaining that Preckwinkle’s chief administrative officer, Robin Kelly, and her staff put together and disseminated an information packet to commissioners, giving the proposed cemetery at 159th and Cicero in Oak Forest a thumbs down. Fritchey said he wasn’t given a copy, wasn’t consulted, and believes there’s misinformation in the sheet.

That includes the cost analysis done by Kelly’s office. The pricetag for having a county-staffed cemetery is pegged at $146,000 while the estimated cost of having the sheriff’s office supervise inmates — as Fritchey is eyeing — is pegged at least $107,000, according to the analysis. That’s about $8,000 less than the $115,000 the county is currently paying Homewood Memorial Gardens Cemetery for indigent burials each year.

Fritchey says the pricetag for having the sheriff’s office supervise jailed inmates do anything from dig graves to make caskets is far less, though annual savings amount wasn’t available.

“The savings would be about $100 million over a century,” he said. “There’s no way that it costs (almost) the same to use county employees and inmates to run a cemetery.”

Mary Paleologos, a county spokeswoman, maintains Fritchey was briefed in a meeting with Kelly, the chief administrative officer, and others about the findings listed in the information sheet. She said the five-page information packet was initially available to elected leaders upon request but has now been given to all 17 commissioners stamped with a “draft.” And she questions why Fritchey is saying the fact sheet contains “misinformation.”

“Just because he doesn’t believe it, doesn’t mean it’s misinformation,” Paleologos said. “These were put together by [industrial] engineers in the Bureau of Administration” who examined everything from the cost of the sheriff’s office overseeing an inmate-staffed cemetery to real estate prices on the land.

Fritchey’s proposal, which calls for county officials to come up with a plan for the county to get back in to the cemetery business, could come up for a vote as soon as the June 19 meeting.

After witnessing problems pertaining to haphazard burials at Burr Oak Cemetery and seeing the burials at the Homewood cemetery, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart pushed for reforms. He has endorsed Fritchey’s plan.

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