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Picnic bench inspector avoids county budget ax

Friday, January 19, 2007
Special to

Sam Simone survives!
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger is cutting the county's budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of employees are going to lose their jobs, but Simone, the Palos Township Democratic committeeman, continues to work for the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
Simone, you may recall, was hired some years back to inspect picnic benches for the forest preserve district. His salary at the time was about $70,000 a year. He's earning $76,000 these days.
"You should be aware that the Cook County budget and forest preserve district are separate and apart from each other," said Steve Mayberry, a spokesman for Stroger.
"Even if Sam Simone's job were eliminated, it would do nothing to help eliminate the $500 million budget deficit faced by Cook County."
Mayberry's point is valid, sort of.
"The forest preserve district maintains its own legal staff, its own financial staff, its own personnel department to hire patronage workers, and its budget is separate from that of Cook County," Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool said.
"It's all that unnecessary bureaucratic duplication that has resulted in the forest preserve district raising property tax rates 13 years in a row, including this year," Claypool said.
And the forest preserve district still owes the county $16 million for loans the county made when the forest preserve district was in deep financial trouble years ago.
"Cutting Simone's salary wouldn't help balance the budget of Cook County or the forest preserve district, but it is salaries such as Simone's that make it difficult for the forest preserve district to pay the county back the money it owes us," Claypool said.
All of this is made more confusing by the fact that the Cook County Board runs both the county government and the forest preserve district.
The same commissioners are in charge of both government entities.
So why couldn't Simone's salary, as small as it is, be transferred to the county side to hire another nurse or two at a clinic?
"It can't be done," Mayberry said. "The funds of the two government agencies can't be commingled."
Legally, he's probably right.
But Mayberry is the spokesman for the forest preserve district and has done his job exceptionally well, under difficult circumstances, in past years.
He's so well-respected, in fact, that Stroger now uses him as his spokesman to answer reporters' questions about Cook County government. Yet, Mayberry still is paid by the forest preserve district.
So if Simone were to leave the forest preserve district, he might be replaced by two nurses hired to inspect picnic benches who then could be put to work at medical clinics in the south suburbs.
I'm just talking theoretically, of course. Hiring people to actually do work that exceeds the bounds of their job descriptions would set a precedent in Cook County.
Simone's job is unimportant, in every way possible.
He is just a symbol of patronage in Cook County.
Before he went to work for the county, he had a do-nothing part-time job for the Illinois secretary of state's office.
When Daily Southtown reporter Jonathan Lipman uncovered the fact that Simone actually was doing nothing for his money, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White eliminated the job.
That's how Simone ended up going to work for the forest preserve district. He was hired by John Stroger, Todd's father, who was president of the Cook County Board at the time.
I should point out that Simone no longer is a picnic bench inspector.
Having achieved monk-like status as the greatest picnic bench inspector in Cook County history, his duties apparently have been expanded to the point that only theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking could comprehend them and only three other people in the world would be able to understand his explanation.
My guess is that Todd Stroger is not one of those three people.
I certainly don't understand it.
I do understand that Stroger is in the process of reviewing about 500 Shakman-exempt employees who work for Cook County, attempting to determine who actually is doing work that needs to be done and who simply is a patronage employee.
That review may include Simone's position.
With all of the budget cutting he's been forced to do in his first months on the job, Stroger needs more time to review everyone's resume and job description, I've been told.
Eliminating picnic bench inspectors isn't like eliminating services at a county medical clinic.
I mean, this is Cook County, after all.
A Democratic township committeeman provides a vital service no medical professional can equal.
He gets out the vote.

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