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Cook Co. board not buying $260 million "scare tactic"

Thursday, November 20, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, county CFO Donna Dunnings and Comptroller John Morales can jump up and down, hold their breath and claim the sky is falling all they want.

But so far, county commissioners aren't buying it.

The county board on Wednesday reiterated its skepticism that the county needs to immediately borrow $260 million through bonds to refill the county's "self-insurance" fund, which pays out lawsuit settlements and jury awards.

That fund, which had $90 million in the beginning of the 2008 budget year, is depleted. Since depleting it, the county has run up a backlog of $8.5 million in lawsuit awards, attorneys fees and other related costs that are waiting to be paid, and are using that as justification to push for the loan, or bond issuance.

But Democratic Commissioners Forrest Claypool and Mike Quigley, both of Chicago, have led a revolt on the issue, pointing out that the fund is a recurring expense and should be funded out of the general budget rather than bonds. They maintain that Stroger's $426 million sales tax increase last year should be more than enough to fill the fund for 2009.

Claypool even goes so far as to hint that the Stroger administration is playing games to make sure it has political "funny money" to dole out on pinstripe patronage projects as he nears his 2010 re-election bid.

"There's something bizarre going on here or you're hiding something from us," Claypool charged.

"Not at all, commissioner. We're not hiding anything," said Joseph Fratto, Stroger's chief of staff.

But after beginning Wednesday's meeting with dire predictions of the county being sued for not paying its lawyers or legal judgments, various administration officials admitted the situation was not quite as serious as they first made it out to be.

Under withering cross-examination by Claypool, Quigley and Republican Peter Silvestri of Elmwood Park, county officials admitted the money to pay the backlogged $8.5 million readily exists right now in the county's $225 million contingency fund.

"We do have money in the working cash fund," Morales said, after being pressed.

But Fratto and others then said they don't have a legal opinion yet on whether it's OK to transfer money from that fund to the other.

"Are you seriously saying we're going to violate the law by transferring out $8 million by transferring out of the general fund in a $(3.2) billion government?" said Claypool. "Eight million dollars is a rounding error in a budget that large."

"That's what the working cash fund is for," said an equally flabbergasted Silvestri. "There's no logical reason ... why this $8.5 million is being held hostage."

Finance Chairman John Daly has said the administration doesn't have the votes right now to pass the bond issuance but claimed after the meeting not to know who the holdout was.

Commissioner Earlean Collins, often the ninth swing vote the president needs on the 17-member board, denied she was the holdout. But she did concede she did not approve of the entire bond issuance Stroger is seeking, which would fund the self-insurance fund for over two years.

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