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Order to hire 700 guards shocks county board

Friday, December 30, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

It has been 24 hours since a federal judge gave Cook County board members a tongue lashing, and Deborah Sims is trying to figure out what this means for the south suburbs and her political future.

Sims is a Cook County commissioner for the 5th District, which includes some of the poorest suburbs in the state.

Robbins. Ford Heights. Phoenix. Harvey. Chicago Heights. All are in her district, along with three city wards and several middle-class suburbs facing difficult economic decisions.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge George Marovich told county board members they must hire more jail guards as part of a court decree.

Between 668 and 798 guards must be hired over the next three years.

That will cost the county an additional $15 million in next year's budget, Sims said.

"We're going to have to find the money to hire about 250 guards each year for the next three years or the judge told us that he was going to hold us personally responsible," said Sims, who was one of six county commissioners present in the courtroom.

I asked Sims if the judge said he was going to fine the commissioners themselves.

"That's my understanding," she said. "I may have misunderstood, but my feeling is he was going to take the salaries of the 700 guards who are needed, divide those salaries by the number of days in a year and fine the commissioners that much for each day we fail to fund the additional guards."

Sims said the judge told the county board members they have until Feb. 21 to include the salaries of the additional guards in Cook County's budget or he will contemplate citing the commissioners for contempt of court.

"I think he means to throw people in jail," Sims said. "He told us if you don't take me serious, don't hire the guards and see what happens."

The county board was facing budget problems even before the judge's order.

To come up with the money to hire 700 new prison guards over the next three years, a tax increase seems inevitable.

Sims is facing a primary election challenge from Dian Powell, of Chicago.

After 12 years in office, Sims knows that taxpayers are fed up with waste and corruption in government.

But she also knows that her district relies on government funds more than any other.

"The county commissioners from the North Shore can scream for reform because cuts will not impact their residents," Sims said.

"My residents need the health clinics the county funds. In fact, we need more clinics because the ones that exist are already overcrowded on many days.

"I had a woman come to me in need of blood pressure medication. She was told her prescription would take the county two weeks to fill. That woman can't wait two weeks. She could be dead. I pleaded with them to find her some samples she could take until her prescription comes through."

South suburbs also rely heavily on community development block grants (funds that flow through the county to local municipalities) for infrastructure improvements.

"The reform commissioners are always talking about cutting those funds," she said. "Homeowners in my communities pay higher property tax rates than most people do in the wealthy North Shore, but because there's a lack of business development, there's still less money available for my communities to spend on their needs."

I told Sims that the public would laugh if I wrote that the county needs more tax money.

They would say, "Cut the waste. Eliminate the patronage. Stop the corruption."

"One thing you don't understand is that the county board approves a budget that funds the offices of 11 independently elected officials, such as the county sheriff and the county clerk," Sims said.

"We have no real control over those people. And every time we try to cut those budgets those elected officials call people in the news media and scream that we're eliminating some program that's vital to the public.

"Then you people in the news media criticize us for cutting those programs."

But the public is in no mood for tax hikes, for schools or anything else.

They elect politicians who talk about cutting government, not expanding it.

The irony is that citizens also elect politicians who are tough on crime.

That means more police, more courtrooms, more judges, bigger jails and, yes, more guards.

In Cook County, the bill is coming due.

The perception, right or wrong, I tell Sims, is that the county wastes tax money.

"I don't know how to change that perception," Sims said.

"I know the reality is that the people in my communities need help. And that's my priority, to represent them."

So is the county going to raise taxes?

"I just know we have to hire 700 guards over the next three years," Sims said. "I don't know where the money is going to come from."

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