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County gobbles Illinois grants Administration grabs big chunk

Thursday, September 20, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County is slicing millions off the top of state grants meant to help catch deadbeat dads or argue death penalty cases and using that money to run the government.
Cook County's system of taking money for "indirect costs" is legal, but no one in the county or the state can say how the formula was reached. The money is generous when compared with the county's grant-administration costs.
Grant money must be strictly spent on specific purposes, but included in some grants is a percentage for "indirect costs" that goes straight to the county treasury, bypassing special purposes.
The county's intergovernmental agreements with the state for going after deadbeat dads are one example.
The state's attorney's office is one of four county agencies that gets state money for the enforcement of child support orders against deadbeat dads or moms.
The state's attorney's office gets money to hire extra prosecutors assigned to prosecute the deadbeat parents in court.
In addition, the grant has specific line items to cover the other costs involved in employing those extra prosecutors. There is money in the grant budget for secretaries, office products, part of the electric bill, even rent in the state's attorney's office.
But about 7.5 percent of the grant is siphoned off for "indirect costs." Indirect costs are supposed to be the few things not specifically named in the grant, costs that must be borne by the county administration.
Pat Compton Lowry, who heads the state's child support enforcement division that distributes the grant, said indirect costs are "anything that a very large organization does to support those provision of services."
Asked for examples, Compton Lowry cited "health benefits, plan administration costs, budget and budget planning, financial reporting."
Here's where the math gets interesting.
The county has four grants for child support enforcement totaling $26.7 million in state aid to the county. The Cook County administration takes more than $2 million for indirect costs.
The county comptroller's office, which handles payroll for 24,000 county employees, operates on a budget of $2.9 million.
No one at the state nor the county could provide a clear explanation of why the county is allowed to take that much money from the state grants.
State officials said the costs are calculated based on federal regulations. But those regulations do not provide a number. Instead, they say the county must prepare specific forms arguing for those indirect costs.
Asked for copies of those forms, state officials said they did not exist.
"In 1998, (the state) negotiated a consistent rate for all four Cook County intergovernmental agreements," said Teresa Kurtenbach, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. "No document detailing the basis for the new rate is available due to the passage of time and staff turnover."
The offices that received the grants said the numbers were negotiated by the county board president's administration.
"That's a standard fee that the county administration takes out of most grants," Sheriff Tom Dart spokesman Bill Cunningham said. "I'm told they sometimes don't take it out of other, smaller grants because it would be too much and would render the grants kind of useless. ... We don't know what the county uses it for."
Cook County administration officials gave an explanation similar to the state's.
"It was agreed upon before this administration came into office, so I don't know what the rationale was," said Ibis Antongiorgi, a spokeswoman for Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.
Other grants have similar cuts off the top. About 6 percent of the state's attorney's office's $2.7 million grant for capital litigation also goes to the county's general fund.


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