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Cook board to debate bond issue labeled 'shell game' by commissioner

Thursday, March 25, 2010
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

The finance committee of the Cook County Board has a special meeting set for today over a potentially contentious bond issue.

Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider charges that President Todd Stroger appears to be running an elaborate shell game by expanding a capital-improvement project with bonds -- loans to be paid back with tax dollars, originally earmarked for pensions and the county's self-insurance.

"I don't believe that this is a shell game," countered Evanston Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin. Although he acknowledged that about $330 million in bonds for new capital projects and equipment was being lumped under a $740 million Master Bond Agreement approved in 2008, which will be expanded by $40 million to accommodate additional capital projects, he said these were new and already approved projects as part of the 2010 budget.

"The interest rates, where they are now, make this an ideal time to do this," he added.

Schneider, however, pointed to how that original bond agreement earmarked about $375 million for capital improvement, $260 million for self-insurance and $104 for pensions. The board wound up approving $354 million in capital improvements, but found other ways to fund the self-insurance and pensions.

"The administration has deemed these projects necessary," he said. "They've got that money burning a hole in their pockets, and they think they've got to spend it."

He pointed to an almost $300,000 rehabilitation project at the county's Hawthorne Warehouse, originally awarded to Infrastructure Engineering, a contributor to Stroger's campaign funds, even though it offered the highest of three bids. The board twice before voted against approving it. "Guess what?" Schneider said. "It's back again in this year's bond ordinance. It's one of the projects."

Suffredin said it was discussed to use the bond money for pensions and self-insurance, but that it wasn't specifically allocated in the original bond ordinance. He defended the new capital spending, including the Hawthorne Warehouse, saying, "These are projects that we need to do to protect our property and liability."

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