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Job freeze not so frozen
Cash-strapped Cook County hires 2,700 in 18 months

Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Eighteen months into a hiring freeze that exempted only critical public health and safety jobs, Cook County government has added 2,700 new workers, roughly 10 percent of the payroll.

Many of the new hires are doctors, nurses and jail guards, but there are also scores of new administrators, and county officials found several slots for relatives and the politically connected.

County Board President John Stroger, who ordered the freeze in 2003, has hired two administrative assistants, a $59,000-a-year human resources aide and a $78,000-a-year special events coordinator, among others.

Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore hired his son Eric, 38, as a $44,000-a-year administrative assistant while also finding an $82,000-a-year position as director of satellite offices for Thornton Township Supervisor and Democratic Committeeman Frank Zuccarelli.

Just weeks after the freeze was imposed, Sheriff Michael Sheahan hired former Chicago Ald. Vilma Colom as an administrative assistant. Colom, who had lost her 35th Ward seat a few months earlier, has since been promoted to director of youth services at a salary of $62,000.

Meanwhile, the freeze did not deter Assessor James Houlihan from hiring a new $119,000-a-year communications director.

The county has been gripped by chronic budget problems in recent years, leading to struggles between Stroger and increasingly restive county commissioners over how to rein in deficits.

Several commissioners are struggling to devise alternatives to a Stroger plan to close a $73 million budget shortfall by raising taxes on restaurant meals and hotel rooms.

Most of the county's $3 billion budget is wrapped up in salaries and benefits for workers, and Stroger has referenced the hiring freeze as an example of how the county is cutting expenses. But even commissioners have acknowledged confusion over the elastic nature of the freeze, one that Stroger has never rescinded but sometimes not strictly enforced.

At a budget hearing Tuesday, one county commissioner questioned how the hiring freeze is defined, prompting another to quip that it's "more of a frost."

Some outside critics also say they doubt the freeze is reducing costs significantly and question how so many positions could be filled in the face of a fiscal crunch.

"It is difficult to see evidence that the freeze is having its purported impact," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation. "The purpose of a government hiring freeze is in tough economic times to really limit the growth of expenditures."

Stroger's executive order, dated July 1, 2003, allows for exceptions to the hiring freeze to fill "critical public health and public safety positions" as well as grant-funded slots.

Stroger defends hires

The new hires made under Stroger--who controls about half of the county's 26,000 employees--all met the "critical" test, said Mark Kilgallon, the county's human resources chief.

Sheahan, Moore, Houlihan and other countywide elected officials control the remainder of county jobs, but under Stroger's freeze they are required to submit hiring requests in writing to the human resources office.

Kilgallon, who reports to Stroger, said he defers to those officials in determining which of their functions are deemed critical.

County officials hired 2,722 permanent workers and another 1,009 short-term hires from the beginning of the hiring freeze until Nov. 13, according to records made available under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

During the same period, about 3,400 workers left the county payroll, most under an early retirement incentive program designed to reduce personnel costs.

Stroger administration officials argue that, over time, even administrative assistant or clerk positions can become critical as work backs up while vacant jobs go unfilled.

"When you have a hiring freeze for 19 months, jobs that may not have been critical at the very beginning can become critical at a certain point, because people leave," said Caryn Stancik, a spokeswoman for Stroger. "You can take on somebody else's workload for only so long."

Doctors, nurses get jobs

Among those hired during the freeze, 900 were doctors, nurses and correctional officers at the jail or at county medical facilities. Another 146 were assistant state's attorneys or public defenders, 49 were probation officers, and 54 were counselors at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Not all new hires so clearly fell into the public safety or health arenas.

In May, Stroger hired a special events coordinator, Julie Ellis, who makes $78,000 a year.

While Ellis' duties include organizing receptions, Stancik said Ellis also is responsible for working on a homeland security grant and doing public relations for the county's 911 board.

In his executive office, Stroger hired six workers, all to fill vacancies, including two administrative assistants.

Stroger's human resources department also provided a $59,000-a-year job to Pia Davis in November 2003, just a few months after she was voted out of a union leadership position.

"Human resources needed someone with labor experience," Stancik said.

Stroger is not alone among county officials in providing jobs to the connected.

In a written response to questions about Moore's hiring decisions, Paula Lingo, Moore's chief legal adviser, said Zuccarelli's 26 years of "managerial work experience" qualified him for the job.

`Operational needs'

Moore hired his son as an administrative assistant working out of the recorder's office in Maywood, which is Moore's political power base. The hiring filled a vacant slot "based on operational needs of the office," according to Lingo.

Sheahan hired Colom, who had lost a bitter re-election battle in 2003 to now Ald. Rey Colon, to work as a liaison to Spanish-speaking inmates at the jail and with the Hispanic community, according to Bill Cunningham, a sheriff's spokesman. Colom is a disciple of powerful Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), the father-in-law of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Colom was hired when the jail's female population was rising, Cunningham said.

In June, Sheahan hired Danielle E. Wagner as a data entry clerk in the civil process section of the sheriff's court services division. Wagner, whose position pays $27,000, is a daughter of Carmelita Wagner, the executive director of the sheriff's training institute and a secretary to Sheahan when he was an alderman.

Cunningham said the freeze had been temporarily lifted when Wagner was hired, though Stroger never made a formal announcement to that effect.

The requirement for forwarding every name for approval was dropped during that period, but the spirit of the freeze to hire only for critical positions remained, Kilgallon said.

Houlihan officially hired Michelle Kucera, his $119,000-a-year spokeswoman who was recently given the title of deputy assessor for communications, in October 2003. But he said talks with Kucera about taking the position predated the freeze.

Houlihan said Kucera, a member of his executive committee, contributes toward policy development in a role that extends far beyond that of a traditional public relations official.

Some county commissioners, who ultimately control the purse strings through the budget process, say a hiring freeze should be unambiguous.

"If the policy is to control the number of employees, then there should be a freeze. A freeze meaning no hires," said Commissioner Gregg Goslin (R-Glenview).

Goslin said the administration should bring any exceptions to filling positions needed for critical services to the full board for explanation.

"If they're violating the terms of the hiring freeze, then at the very least the administration should explain why," Goslin added. "Absent any explanation, it's just folly."



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