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Cook commissioners OK bigger staffs, deny mammogram funding

Thursday, February 28, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

On a day when a block of Cook County commissioners cried out for tax increases to pay for health care, most of the same commissioners chose to raise their own office staff budgets by 26 percent rather than give up some of that money to pay for poor women's mammograms.

The measure would have given up $1.1 million of the $1.6 million increase for commissioners' staffs in Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's budget and diverted that money to reduce a backlog of mammograms scheduled at Stroger Hospital.

The measure failed with every one of the four women on the board voting to keep the office budget increases.

"We're not willing to do that?" said an incredulous Forrest Claypool, who voted for the measure, which failed 9-8.

Commissioners' $85,000 annual salaries would not have changed either way. With an increased office budget, commissioners could choose to add to their staffs or give their existing staff members raises, or both. The office budget increase concerns only staff salaries, not anything like office supplies or travel and entertainment expenses.

Voting no on the mammogram measure were Gorman, Bill Beavers, Jerry Butler, Earlean Collins, Joseph Moreno, Joan Murphy, Peter Silvestri, Deborah Sims and Robert Steele.

Some of the commissioners said they were voting no because they had their own amendments giving back their offices' increases.

One of those was Liz Gorman, who represents portions of Des Plaines and Arlington Heights.

Gorman asked if some of her office budget increase could go to mammograms but made no formal motion to that effect, meaning the money just goes back into the general fund.

"You had your chance," cried out Claypool.

Right now commissioners have staffs of between 2½ and five people. Full-time staff members' annual salaries range from $39,000 to $88,000.

The 17 commissioners now have an annual staff budget of about $5.5 million. So on average each commissioner gets about $322,000 for a staff.

The Cook County budget as it stands now would increase that allotment to about $6.9 million, meaning an average of $406,000 for each staff.

If the board had diverted money to the mammograms, the annual staff budget would change to about $5.9 million, or about $348,000 for each staff.

While commissioners make an $85,000 annual salary as set by law, for most the job is a part-time one. Some commissioners are lawyers or own businesses, or have other full-time jobs.

As the board continued meeting Wednesday night, it remained essentially in the same position it began the day, with a huge gap between revenue and expenditures.

The day started with a $283 million deficit, and it was not clear how much of that hole had been filled by some of the small amendments passed during the day -- like a vote to sell surplus county land, estimated to bring in $10 million or so.

Stroger is proposing an increase of 1.25 percentage points in the sales tax to balance the 2008 budget, but so far has only been able to garner eight votes -- one shy of the nine needed.

One of those voting no is Roberto Maldonado, who says that a sales tax is too regressive and would hurt senior citizens in his district.

Maldonado is instead proposing a quarter-point increase in the sales tax and five alternative taxes. Maldonado would increase taxes on jet fuel, heavy vehicles, and alcohol served in bars. He would also increase the county's use tax by a quarter-point and the county's hotel tax by one percent.

"I will not make a compromise on 1.25 percent," Stroger said. "We came down from 2 (percent)."

Another compromise offered came from Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who offered to vote for some unspecified taxes, perhaps a use tax, if Stroger would agree to placing the county hospital into temporary trusteeship.

If Stroger doesn't take either of the deals and pass some sort of budget by Friday night, he risks sending the county into a constitutional quagmire.

By law, the county cannot levy any money as of March 1 without having passed a balanced budget.

"We would have to go to court. We would have to ask the court if we could appropriate money for the jail, the hospital … (and) the sheriff's police," Stroger said.

If a budget is not passed by Friday night -- three months into the 2008 budget year -- there is a serious question as to whether the county, even if it passed a budget later, could collect the $700 million in property taxes it now does, said Patrick Driscoll, the Cook County state's attorney's head of the civil division bureau. That would leave a gaping hole in the county's $3.2 billion budget.

Asked if taking a lower tax increase than he wants would be better than possibly losing that amount, Stroger said no.

"We need to fund the system … at a rate that we're not coming back next year trying to figure out how we're going to fund the system," Stroger said.

Stroger's tax would raise $400 million to 500 million annually, more than the $280 million his administration needs for 2008. Over-raising taxes, Stroger says, would allow the system to operate without an additional tax hike in 2009 and 2010. The latter is an election year.

Stroger's administration is "cutting off its nose to spite its face," Commissioner Mike Quigley said.

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