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Cook Co. board panel backs new capital bonds

Friday, March 26, 2010
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Against firm Republican opposition, the finance committee of the Cook County Board approved borrowing $332 million for capital projects and equipment today.

Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider called the borrowing plan a shell game exploiting a bond authorization originally allocated for county pensions and self-insurance. Yet, his larger issue was county spending and borrowing in general in the midst of a down economy.

"We should not be spending any amount of money unless it's absolutely necessary," he said. "We don't see, we don't represent what's going on outside the walls of this building."

The Democratic majority disagreed and seized on the opportunity to make capital improvements in the county's hospitals and jail - projects already approved in the 2010 budget with the intent to borrow to pay for them, according to committee Chairman John Daley. He pointed out that, although the ordinance was sponsored by President Todd Stroger, most of the capital improvements were specifically requested by elected officials like Sheriff Tom Dart and Assessor James Houlihan.

"This is about issues that affect people - the hospitals and public safety," Daley said.

Chief Financial Officer Jaye Williams said the county, which has a strong bond rating, in marked opposition to the state or Chicago, can take advantage of the best bond market in years. She said there is a backlog of capital improvements from the last two years after the county had not previously authorized any borrowing for capital projects since 2006.

"This is stuff we should have done four years ago," said Crestwood Democratic Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy. "So bite the bullet, guys. This is the time."

"Nobody wants to vote for hundreds of millions of dollars in debt," added Chicago Democratic Commissioner Bridget Gainer. Yet, she called the capital projects "things we have to do to continue to function."

Evanston Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin said capital improvements at the Cook County jail would finally enable the county to get out from under the decades-old Duran and Harrington consent decrees, which provide for monitoring of jail crowding and inmates' mental health. He said most of the other already-approved capital improvements were for "essential hospital equipment" and equipment in the assessor's office to improve efficiency.

Others were unhappy about previously rejected projects suddenly reappearing, such as $280,000 for a parking lot at the county's Hawthorne Warehouse on Chicago's West Side. Elmwood Park Republican Commissioner Peter Silvestri said the Hawthorne parking lot "should almost be a swear word at this point."

The county board agreed two years ago to issue up to $740 million in bonds. The board issued $354 million in bonds for capital projects last year and allocated an additional $365 million for self-insurance and pensions. Yet, the board voted instead to set aside the self-insurance money in its own budget. making room for the finance committee to borrow the additional $332 million for capital improvements and equipment this year. Even at that, it had to also approve raising the bond ceiling to $780 million, and Schneider pointed out there is even an extra $11 million cushion in that.

"I know the cards are stacked against me today. But I had to get my points out," he said, later adding, "I think the people of the county really got screwed."

The ordinance was approved by the committee by a party-line vote of 12-4. It is expected to pass when the board approves the finance committee agenda at its regular meeting in April.

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