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Commissioners: Stroger made $20M in budget changes

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Todd Stroger's office has made at least $20 million in changes to the 2007 Cook County budget without consulting the board, usurping its right to set spending priorities, a group of opposition commissioners said.
"This is an intrusion upon the legislative process. It is a violation of our rules and our laws," Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) said. "I think this is a hijacking of the county budget."
Among the changes were a $3.2 million cut in Stroger Hospital's budget and a $170,466 boost for the chief administrative officer's budget, said Commissioners Quigley, Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) and Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston).
A spokesman for board President Stroger, although saying he could not address any of the specific changes, said they were within legal bounds.
"The changes were due to inconsistencies in the budget that existed," said Richard Velazquez, special assistant to the president. "The changes are not substantive in nature. They are actually in line with what the intent of the board was in passing the annual appropriations."
The 2007 budget was one of the most fiercely negotiated county budgets in memory, with the final vote coming Feb. 24 at 2:30 a.m. after marathon back-room trading. Quigley angered several of his usual board allies by siding with Stroger on the budget vote.
The final document avoided a tax increase by closing some county health clinics, restricting county health services and laying off 1,700 county workers.
The Daily Southtown reported in March that Stroger's office was restoring some of the eliminated positions by moving funding into jobs that were budgeted at $1. A full list of such positions never has been provided, despite repeated requests.
Quigley said Tuesday the changes to the negotiated budget went even further, according to the final budget document released in recent weeks.
Stroger's budget team, led by newly confirmed chief financial officer Donna Dunnings, ignored some of the amendments passed by the board while making additional changes never approved by commissioners.
"A cursory analysis of the budget ... details at least $20 million worth of alterations that took place without any authority or discussion with the board of Cook County," Quigley said. "If the president is allowed to do this ... he can rewrite the whole thing."
Quigley handed out a five-page list of what he said were discrepancies between what the board voted on and what Stroger's office now says is in the budget.
At Quigley's request, the state's attorney's office issued a legal opinion saying the president's office cannot make "substantive changes" to the budget after it passes.
Stroger's office did not dispute the legal opinion but said any changes made were not substantive, just cleanup from the chaotic budget process.
"There existed 127 amendments," Velazquez said. "The annual appropriation bills have always included language which allowed the budget director and the budget department to fix any mathematical errors, any inconsistencies in the amendments."

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