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Hiring in county cold but not frozen

Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Two months into what Board President Bobbie Steele promised was a "tougher" across-the-board hiring freeze, Cook County has not stopped hiring new people.

Records show the county took on 297 employees in August and September, according to records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

That's about 148 employees hired per month. In the eight months before Steele took office, the county hired about 206 employees per month, according to reported figures.

Many of the recent hires were in offices Steele does not control, such as the sheriff's office.

Shortly after taking office Aug. 1, Steele promised a freeze that she said would be tougher than the so-called freeze the county had operated under for years.

Steele said the county – facing a $500 million budget deficit next year -- could not hire anyone except for "critical public health and public safety positions," grant-funded positions and "positions that may be necessary to complete the orderly transition of government."

Of the 297 new employees in August and September, 83 have little or nothing to do with providing for public health or public safety.

The county has added $11.4 million in payroll in August and September. A few of those hired already have left.

While a majority of those hired are jail guards, deputy sheriffs, prosecutors, doctors and nurses, 83 are in positions that may be considered less critical. They include:

27 clerks in the assessor's, court clerk's and other offices;

11 administrative assistants;

7 law clerks;

4 building service workers;

4 stenographers;

1 laundry worker.

Steele's office did not return a request for comment.

All hires were cleared through Steele's chief of staff, the employee's department head, and the budget office.

Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) said Steele can't be held accountable for all of those hires, as many are under the offices of separately elected officials.

"The hiring freeze can only pertain to the offices under the president," Murphy said. "The others, we have no control over."

One of the most insistent voices for cuts, Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), said Steele has kept hiring of non-essential staff to a minimum compared to past administrations.

"That's clearly not a hiring freeze," Claypool said. "But the number of non-essential personnel hired appears small when compared to the overall workforce. ... It's not something I'm going to get worked up about."

But Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), head of the finance committee, said the numbers are an example of why he wants greater accountability from everyone in county government.

"On all these positions, even the doctors, I have suggested they bring them to the board, and have them justify why they had to hire them," Daley said. "Things are very tight ... If we're going to be serious about this finance problem, when there's retirement, we have to say, 'Do we need this job?'"

The county hired 1,648 people over the first eight months of the fiscal year, which began in December, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report. During that time, the county supposedly was operating under a hiring freeze ordered by former Board President John Stroger. About 1,300 of those were hired in the months after Stroger suffered a serious stroke, taking him out of day-to-day control of the county.

Commissioner Tony Peraica, a candidate for president, has argued that bureaucrats running the office in his absence stacked the payroll with political hires while Stroger was sick.

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