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County OKs $15 million south suburban clinic — despite gripes over location and terms of deal

Commissioner Donna Miller said she’s been asking about how Blue Island was selected as the site. The answer she’s received has “always been vague.”

Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller, left, and Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, right
Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller, left, and Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, right, in 2018. File photos. |
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Cook County Board is moving ahead with the purchase of what will be a new $15.3 million clinic in south suburban Blue Island, despite two commissioners’ concerns that it’s a bad deal for the county and a hassle for residents seeking healthcare.

The board approved the purchase of the building at 12757 S. Western Ave. on Thursday to replace the old Oak Forest clinic that’s set to close.

Commissioners Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park, and Donna Miller, D-Lynwood, were the only no votes.

Miller said she’s been asking how Blue Island was selected as the site since she took office last December. The answer she’s received has “always been vague,” she said, and factored into her decision to vote against purchasing the property.

The Blue Island site is a 14-minute drive from the Oak Forest clinic it’s replacing. But public transportation options — which include taking the Rock Island District Metra commuter line or two buses — could make travel times twice as long or more.

“I’ve never been satisfied with the answer that it’s close by,” Miller said. “I would encourage [Cook County Health] to go on a field trip to see how public transit is not easily accessible for people who live in certain areas.”

Morrison said he voted against it for “several reasons,” including how it was presented to commissioners.

“I had questions and concerns about the timing, about the chain of ownership of the property, and the timing and conversion of lease deals into purchase deals,” Morrison said. “And I guess I’m second-guessing, at the end of the day, if it was the best deal for Cook County government.”

The LLC that sold the building to the county is managed by Robert Ferrino, who founded Madison Construction, which is located in Orland Park.

That company, Morrison pointed out, has donated money to aldermanic and county political funds, including $1,000 to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s campaign fund in 2009, $1,500 in 2011 and $250 in 2017; $300 to Commissioner Luis Arroyo Jr.’s campaign fund in 2014; and $2,000 to the Cook County Democratic Party, which Preckwinkle chairs, Oct. 16, 2018 though reported in January 2019.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is self-isolating after a member of her security detail tested positive for COVID-19, her office announced April 7, 2020.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at Greater Harvest Baptist Church in March. File Photo.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

Ferrino is also chairman and CEO of Three Corners Development, which is doing the development work to renovate the building, which their site is calling the Blue Island Medical Clinic.

“Three Corners Development worked closely with Cook County Health to provide a building that will service their needs, the City of Blue Island to ensure that the residents receive the maximum benefit from this investment, and the construction team to guarantee an on time and on budget delivery of this much anticipated development,” a description of the project on Three Corners’ site reads.

An initial appraisal in September 2018 states Cook County Health intended to occupy the building and a lease “will be signed with an assumed start date of Aug. 1, 2019.”

That appraisal was done about a month before Ferrino’s LLC acquired the building from a trust for $685,000 and the lease mentioned in it was a draft, one to show a big tenant would be using the building so he could get the financing to develop the building.

The 10-year lease agreement was initially slated to come before the board in October but was withdrawn. The board didn’t pass it until Nov. 14, with no mention then of an eventual option to purchase the building, Morrison said.

Ferrino’s attorney, John Cooney, disputed that, saying there was always an option in the lease for the county to purchase the building and the Thursday vote was the board executing that option.

Morrison wouldn’t say whether he thinks politics played a role.

“[Ferrino] is the only one who can say whether or not it’s political in nature,” Morrison said. “He made the donation to the Cook County Democratic Party after it was all done. It’s up to him to answer that, but those are the facts and the facts certainly point to there being political elements to the story.”

Ferrino said Sunday he’d never met Morrison and his business has suffered because of the “false allegations” leveled at him in the past. The money he’s donated isn’t for political reasons, it’s to support “people that are trying to do the right things in the communities that need it the most.”

“To have these types of accusations made — and I know they will hurt me just making the accusations — it infuriates me,” Ferrino said. “It goes against my very fundamental beliefs, and I have never asked for political favors or political reasons to do something like this ... I am fundamentally working in these neighborhoods to help people that need help the most, and as a result in several occasions I’ve been attacked for it and I’m offended by it.”

Other commissioners, and Board President Toni Preckwinkle, argue the purchase is a good deal.

“Based on a financial analysis, it was recommended that Cook County purchase rather than rent Blue Island Center because it will save us money,” Preckwinkle said, adding that it will save the county money on taxes and rent. “Blue Island is designated as a medically underserved area by the federal government. Keeping this in mind, purchasing the facility allows us to deliver reliable care to our residents at the lowest cost to the county.”

Commissioner Kevin Morrison, D-Mount Prospect, said Wednesday the other Commissioner Morrison made some good points, but the vote will save the county money and “bring a clinic to a community that really needs it.”

Cook County Commissioner Kevin B. Morrison.
Cook County Commissioner Kevin B. Morrison. File Photo.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

For Miller, her “n”o vote was about keeping the county’s health goals in mind.

“Moving to this location doesn’t make sure we have healthier communities throughout all of Cook County,” she said.

Clarification: The $2,000 donation to the Cook County Democrats from Madison Construction was made in October 2018 and reported in January 2019. An earlier version of this story said the donation was made in January 2019.