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
"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
"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.