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No solution on jail guard funding

Thursday, January 12, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

County commissioners reviewed the budget for the Cook County Jail on Wednesday but are no closer to finding the $7.6 million needed to hire new jail guards ordered by a federal judge.

Commissioners accused President John Stroger of presenting an incomplete and unclear budget and said he was dragging his feet on finding a solution.

"It's your responsibility to present a balanced budget," Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) told Stroger. "I don't think there was any great shock ... there would be a budgetary need to hire new jail guards."

"We're halfway through the first (fiscal) quarter, and I don't think anyone in this room knows how we're going to balance this."

Commissioner Carl Hansen (R-Mount Prospect) agreed, telling budget officials he needed at least a week to study any proposed changes.

"You're not moving expeditiously enough, in my mind, to solve this," he said.

Stroger said it will be up to the commissioners to find the money.

"I sent a balanced budget to the finance committee, of which you are a member," Stroger told Quigley. "If some of you had followed the recommendations I made two years ago (on new taxes), we wouldn't be in this predicament."

The county needs to hire at least 250 guards at the jail to comply with instructions from U.S. District Judge George Marovich, who threatened the commissioners last month with daily fines for contempt of court.

Marovich oversees conditions at the jail under the settlement terms of a 1974 civil rights lawsuit filed by inmates. He says 750 guards must be hired over the next few years and was angry with the county for including no new guards in the 2006 budget after a similar threat last year.

In open court, Marovich has said he is uninterested in politics or the budgeting process, so long as he gets results. But commissioners say that in chambers the judge put the burden on finance committee chairman John Daley, who runs the budget hearings.

Daley (D-Chicago) has adopted a message similar to Stroger's, saying the budget process is open to all commissioners, and he's sure something will be offered in time. The budget must be approved by the end of February, or the county would face a possible shutdown.

Stroger's 2006 budget proposal would raise the county tax on cigarettes from $1 to $2 a pack and will cut 82 vacant positions from the county's 25,400-person work force.

Budget hearings started earlier this week and commissioners reviewed Sheriff Michael Sheahan's departmental budget Wednesday.

Sheahan, who is retiring next year, asked that some small cuts in his budget be restored, which budget director Donna Dunnings said she would consider. He identified nowhere in his department where he could find the $7 million needed for the first year of wages for the new guards.

Although no solutions have been formally proposed, some commissioners have begun discussing a 0.5 percent or 0.75 percent across-the-board cut in the general fund, which would free up between $11 million and $16 million.

Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago) has suggested increasing the cigarette tax increase to $2.10 or $2.15 per pack instead of $2.

"Why not? Then you're just voting on the one tax," Maldonado said. "Those who will vote for the $1 increase will also vote for the $1.10 increase."



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