Commissioners to hold Preckwinkle to her word
Sunday, February 06, 2011
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
“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
“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
“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.