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Take the money and run

Saturday, November 25, 2006
Chicago Tribune

Bobbie Steele took over Aug. 1 as the interim president of the Cook County Board, and she hasn't done much in her brief time as the boss other than to preside over a succession of inauguration parties.

But, oh, these four months will be very sweet for her.
Steele, who was just re-elected to another term as a county commissioner, told WLS-TV on Thanksgiving that she's going to retire now. That will allow her to collect a fat $136,000-a-year pension. She'll collect far more in retirement than she was ever paid in salary (currently $85,000 a year) as a commissioner.

How's that?

Thanks to pension laws that politicians designed to make politicians happy, Steele can draw a pension based on her salary during her four months as County Board president. The president makes a lot more than the part-time commissioners make. So Steele gets to cash in.

"I don't want anyone to think I'm a bandit and I'm taking something and running," Steele told WLS. "That's not me. I did not make the law, and if I become the beneficiary of it, it's by no doing of my own."

That's not me? Nonsense.

Steele had an opponent on Nov. 7 in her campaign for commissioner. She had every opportunity before Election Day to tell voters that she had no intention of serving another term, that she would take the money and run. She was asked many times if she intended to retire after the election. She said that she planned to come back as a commissioner.

But it seemed pretty obvious--if she returned to her commissioner post on Dec. 4 when incoming President Todd Stroger was sworn in, her pension would be based on the smaller salary.

So Steele's leaving. And she wants to install her son Robert Steele in her commissioner's seat. Voters will get no say in that.

So what did voters and taxpayers get that's worth paying Bobbie Steele $136,000 a year in retirement? Not much. She lopped off a few bureaucrats' heads. But she hasn't even produced a budget for the fiscal year that starts on Friday.

Is that too much to ask in return for four months of fat salaries and a huge pension bump?

The county is worse than busted. It faces a huge operating deficit next year and no plan for how it will cut costs to close that deficit.

All we really needed from the Steele interregnum was a budget. Where is it?

The people of Cook County haven't gotten much from the Steele administration. But they did get this: another lesson in how politicians play them for chumps.

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