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County commissioners weigh in on equally dividing office budgets

Wednesday, January 05, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

A budget battle could be in the works as several Cook County commissioners push a plan to divvy up - equally - the roughly $6 million set aside to run their offices.

The disparities were never more evident than in last year’s budget when then-Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno’s 7th District office was appropriated the most at $459,975 while former Commissioner Tony Peraica’s 16th District office got the smallest piece at $321,473.

Technically, Commissioner John Daley’s office budget has the smallest budget - $225,033 - but he got an extra $301,921 for staffing and other expenses as finance committee chair.

As the budget season looms, several commissioners say the $6 million must be slashed in a countywide effort to close a half-billion budget deficit and then divide the remaining money among the 17 commissioners.

“We need to have a level playing field for all of the commissioners,” newly elected Commissioner John Fritchey told the Sun-Times.

“These aren’t earmarks...these are budgets to pay your staff, buy your stamps. These are things that should be equalized in value. I cannot find any logical basis for the notion that another commissioner’s constituents are worth more than are mine,” said Fritchey, who took over fellow North Side Democrat and Commissioner Forrest Claypool’s old seat. His budget was in the bottom three, at $329,660.

Indeed the commissioners each have about 320,000 constituents, said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who also supports disbursing the money pot equally among commissioners.

The North Side and suburban Democrat, whose $357,524 budget is somewhere in the middle, has been on the board for eight years and says the disparities are the result of certain commissioners adhering to budget cuts in past years while others avoided them as they curried favor with former county board presidents.

While acknowledging commissioners vote on the final budget package - including commissioners’ spending plans - Suffredin maintains former board president Todd Stroger’s administration created some wiggle room to adjust the numbers.

In submitting their budget plans to newly minted Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Suffredin and Fritchey made their pitch. If the plan succeeds, Suffredin estimates each office would receive about $325,000 apiece.

Asked about the proposal, Preckwinkle issued a statement saying, “They (commissioners) are acutely aware of the budget challenge before us and the need for collaboration in meeting this challenge and I’m leaving it to them to chart an appropriate course when it comes to their budget.”

Jesus Garcia, a Southwest Side Democrat who not only won Moreno’s seat last year but also the largest budget among commissioners, stopped short of saying the money should be divided equally.

He’s careful, even seeking donated furniture for an office, but Garcia says his costs may be higher because his office will be busier than some.

“I envision my office is going to be quite busy,” he said. “I think that in terms of people, there may be more needing information, referrals because they may not. . .be as familiar with this society as (constituents) in other districts.”

Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, a west suburban Democrat who also has one of the smallest budgets, said he has everything to win under a new budget formula that by at least one calculation would boost his annual budget beyond the $321,000.

And while he’s seen some paperwork showing a majority of commissioners back the measure, Commissioner Robert Steele, a Chicago Democrat, said this will most certainly stir debate - and possibly hard feelings.

“I think it’s going to be contentious,” said Steele, whose taking a wait-and-see attitude.

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