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What's REALLY in the county budget? Who knows?

Sunday, March 25, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Some of the jobs cut in the fierce last-minute negotiations over the Cook County budget are being quietly put back in, but it's impossible to say where -- board President Todd Stroger's administration says it still can't release a list of which jobs were cut and which were not.
It's been a full month since the county board passed the controversial 2007 budget.
Commissioners wrangled for weeks leading up to the budget deadline. The final 2 a.m. vote came after hours of negotiation between Stroger and Republicans, as they went through the budget deciding line-by-line which jobs would stay and which would go.
But that carefully negotiated document, which supposedly laid off 1,700 people and cut another 500 vacant jobs, is "just a piece of paper" and "a moving target," according to several high-level sources.
Budget officials and department heads, without approval from the county board, are restoring some of the jobs that were "cut" by being reduced to $1 of funding.
Other jobs are being left vacant to keep the budget balanced.
Stroger's office says this is routine -- that's why jobs are left at $1. But commissioners are saying that they should be consulted.
"They shouldn't be filling the positions until we know which positions are being cut," said Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park), one of the commissioners in on final negotiations with Stroger. "That isn't right. -- They should come through the board."
Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), a Stroger critic who was not part of those negotiations, was more direct.
"It's obviously sneaky and deceptive," Claypool said. "It sounds as if they're maneuvering political people in there when the public would have every reason to believe these jobs would be eliminated."
At the Cook County medical examiner's office, a politically connected former state worker was hired into a six-figure administrative job that was budgeted at $1.
Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said the restored jobs are few and are not the reason for the delays in releasing details of the budget cuts.
But the county could provide no other reason why the five-person budget staff needs more time.
The original budget and all of the amendments passed at the Feb. 23 meeting have been entered into the computers, Mayberry said. The budget staff now is concentrating on what union employees need to be paid under their various contracts.
"The process of finalizing all the details having to do with the budget has been ongoing," Mayberry said. "As soon as that information is available, we'll forward it to you. We anticipate that to be in the next week."
The Daily Southtown submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for a list of positions cut. It was due Wednesday, and the county requested an extension.
"The budget office lost four people, so almost half their staff," Mayberry said. "It's not an easy task."
Gorman, Claypool and Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) said the information should be public by now.
"I think they should have to come to us and tell us what they're doing," said Quigley, who angered longtime allies by negotiating with Stroger in the final hours. "It's possible they've got a good explanation for each (restored job) -- but they shouldn't be able to change the game afterwards."
Quigley, Claypool and the rest of the board debated fiercely over whether the final budget cut enough bureaucrats while nurses, clerks and sheriff's deputies were losing their jobs.
Quigley said he's been hearing rumors for weeks that some of the management jobs that were cut were being restored. He said acting Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings, the former budget director, denied it.
"She said no, no, no, people are trying to do it and we stop it," Quigley said. "I said I hear it's vindictive, it's political. -- They denied it. I'm going to have to confront her on this again."
David Foley started in March as the executive officer of the medical examiner's office, a vacant job that had been cut from $102,229 to $1 in budget amendments.
Foley formerly worked in Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes' office, in their cemetery division, and is a precinct captain for powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Mayberry said the job never should have been reduced to $1 because it's needed and because Foley had been offered the job and accepted it before the budget was passed. The office has 10 other people working in administration and a total staff of about 95.
There's a difference between jobs that are totally eliminated, reduced to $0, and jobs that are reduced to $1, Mayberry said. Restoring those barely funded jobs is a common government practice, he said.
"Over time, opinions can change over what's needed and what's not," Mayberry said.
Any job that was totally eliminated from the 2007 budget will remain eliminated, Mayberry said.
Mayberry said there will be no effect on the county's bottom line in filling the $1 jobs.
"The funds that we're talking about come from vacancies," Mayberry said. "The bottom line effect on the budget is nil. Otherwise, you'd be throwing the budget out of whack."
But Claypool said the bitterly contested issue of streamlining Cook County government and cutting the administration is at stake, and the board is legally entitled to control the budget.
"The board would have to approve these transfers in our mid-year meeting. They're assuming that -- by the middle of the year we'll all have forgotten," Claypool said. "It behooves the board to look at these closely. -- This year, people's lives are at stake."
 
Contributing: Phil Kadner


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