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New inspector general, borrowing on tap at Cook County Board meeting

Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Chicago Tribune

The Cook County Board has a full agenda on tap Wednesday. Commissioners will consider a somewhat controversial choice for county inspector general and whether to borrow $3.75 billion. Most of that sum would be a refinancing deal to save money, but another $750 million would go to pay for, among other things, construction projects and pension payments. For more on all of these issues, keep reading...

From today's print edition:

By Hal Dardick

Cook County Board commissioners Tuesday backed hiring as their in-house corruption buster the same attorney who has defended them and Board President Todd Stroger against claims of illegal political hiring.

Asst. State's Atty. Patrick Blanchard won the day after coming to his own defense, saying he would act with "independence, objectivity and integrity at every step" as county inspector general. State’s Atty. Richard Devine also backed Blanchard, who has represented the county in the landmark 1969 federal Shakman case that that prohibits political hiring, promotions and discipline for most county employees.

Michael Shakman, the attorney who brought the patronage case, ripped the choice.

"His appointment would say clearly and unmistakably that Cook County is not ready for patronage reform," Shakman told commissioners. "To appoint your own lawyer as the watchdog over your own political hiring and firing and other illegal activity makes a joke out of the concept of independent oversight that this office is supposed to provide."

As a result of the 10-3 committee vote for Blanchard—who was picked by county officials from among three candidates selected by local legal groups after a nationwide search—the County Board is set to finalize his hiring Wednesday.

That, Shakman said, would cause him to ask the judge overseeing the Shakman case to name a second inspector general to handle any future claims of illegal patronage.

"The image of this body is going to be tarnished," said Commissioner Earlean Collins, a Chicago Democrat who voted against Blanchard. "We are going to spend more money in court."

In other action Tuesday, commissioners voted to give the Stroger administration authority to issue $3.75 billion in bonds and sanctioned a simplification of the county property-tax assessment system. Those measures also are slated for routine approval Wednesday.

The bonding authority would allow Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings to refinance about $3 billion in outstanding bonds, provided she can save 3 percent, or more than $90 million. But the deal also will allow her to borrow $376 million for building projects, $260 million for the public health system's self-insurance fund and $104 million for pension fund payments put off last year.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) said Stroger's administration did not provide adequate detail about who would get the lucrative legal counsel and bond business, was inappropriately borrowing money to pay for day-to-day operations and wasn’t clear about how all of it would be used.

"The board has delegated the authority for hundreds of millions of dollars in borrowing without a clear explanation of how it will be used after approving the largest tax increase in the county's history," he said, referring to a sales-tax increase enacted earlier in the year.

He also suggested future bonds could give Stroger, his political nemesis, "funny money" to lower property taxes before his anticipated reelection effort in 2010.

The tax assessment changes were proposed by Assessor James Houlihan. They would decrease the number of property tax classifications from seven to two—with residential property assessed at 10 percent and commercial and industrial property at 25 percent—to provide "clarity, simplicity and accuracy to the assessment process," he said.

"Passing this ordinance in itself will neither increase nor lower anyone's tax bill, nor will it result in the tax burden being shifted from one class to another," he added.

Less certain at Wednesday's meeting is the fate of a Stroger-proposed ban on doing business with "unfair lenders," not to mention Stroger's proposal that the state impose a one-year moratorium on mortgage foreclosures to give those facing ouster from their homes time to renegotiate terms.

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