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Commissioners to hold Preckwinkle to her word

Sunday, February 06, 2011
SouthtownStar
by Kristen McQueary

About once an hour, Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman’s telephone rings. On the line is a county worker recently laid off or still employed but terrified of the pink slip.

“I’m getting people who had 24 years (with the county) getting laid off and maybe a year shy or even a month shy of some type of pension,” she said. “They tell me they’ll take furloughs or vacation time or whatever to avoid being laid off.”

Just a few days after board President Toni Preckwinkle’s budget speech, county commissioners expressed reticence to embrace it wholly. Personnel cuts will exceed 1,075 positions, a significant slice of the work force that eventually could reach 6 or 8 percent, Preckwinkle told the SouthtownStar editorial board recently.

So while acknowledging Preckwinkle’s “honeymoon” period as a popular, newly elected official, the 17 county commissioners also have begun asserting themselves, subtly. They are the legislative branch — a “check” on the executive branch — charged with approving the final budget.

“As always, there is an amendment process and a hearing process,” Gorman said. “No budget is perfect, but then again this is nothing new. We had cuts as layoffs in 2007. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”

In other words, thank you, Madame President, for the blueprint. We’ll take it from here.

That’s OK, as long as commissioners don’t plop glut back into the spending plan. They are facing pressure from the county’s powerful unions, including Service Employees International Union, to reduce layoffs. Commissioners want assurance the cuts are hitting all departments and levels fairly.

Gorman, an Orland Park Republican, said she wants to be sure laborers aren’t bearing the load of layoffs while managers coast toward long-term employment.

“During the amendment process, we can ask specifically those kinds of questions,” she said.

What voters don’t want to see is a lean county budget proposal from Preckwinkle land on the grill with ribbons of fat. Don’t turn a filet mignon into a rib eye.

Also playing into budget negotiations is ego. Veteran politicians who have, at some point, experienced the sting of news coverage feel certain bravado when a newly elected colleague becomes the beneficiary of editorial praise, as Preckwinkle has. The commissioners see a vantage point different from the media’s and the public’s. They see the darlings up close.

To that end, Gorman is introducing an ordinance that would prohibit workers receiving public pensions of $40,000 or more from taking new positions in the county system. The bill arose from her suspicion that some high-level Preckwinkle hires who previously worked for the city of Chicago are collecting county paychecks in addition to pension checks from their old jobs.

That practice of so-called double dipping is widely criticized by good government types — the same types now praising Preckwinkle for her stewardship.

On Dec. 30, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park), that would end double dipping. It was unclear last week when I made phone calls whether the law applied in the situation Gorman’s ordinance attempts to end. The law would not, for example, take away the city pension check that County Commissioiner William Beavers (D-Chicago) receives; he also is paid by the county taxpayers.

But it might prohibit Preckwinkle’s hires whom she plucked from city retirement, including chief financial officer Tariq Malhance, from collecting two paychecks. Preckwinkle announced his hiring after Quinn signed the law.

Neither Preckwinkle’s office nor Quinn’s office could specifically address those types of cases.

Gorman’s beef with double-dipping extends to the unemployment rate. Malhance, for example, whom Gorman supported, is qualified for the job based on his years of experience. But might someone else who isn’t collecting a comfortable pension be able to fill that role?

“People drawing on those pensions are going to end up banking one of those paychecks,” Gorman said. “They don’t need all that money to live on. Instead, we can put someone back to work. If every other level of government adopted an ordinance like this, do you know how many more people we could put back to work?”

Preckwinkle presented her budget to commissioners last week, emphasizing a theme that “no one is absolved” from closing the county’s $487 million gap.

County commissioners, apparently, will ensure no one is absolved either — including Preckwinkle’s own cabinet hires.



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