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Elected County leaders may be forced to take furlough days

Friday, February 25, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County’s elected leaders may feel a lightening bolt to the wallet this year.

That’s because a job-saving, cost-cutting proposal County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration and the unions are working on calls for county employees — including the 17 commissioners, assessor and treasurer — to take 10 unpaid days off this year, officials say.

“I think shared sacrifice means shared sacrifice and I think it’s only proper to lead by example,” said Commissioner John Fritchey, a North Side Democrat.

Fellow North Side Commissioner Bridget Gainer, also a Democrat, said: “Of course we should be included. If we’re laying off nurses and secretaries and everybody else, it’s only fair that everyone share in the reduction.”

Commissioners earn $85,000 a year and the furloughs mean they’d be saying goodbye, before taxes, to little more than $3,000 for those two weeks without pay.

Commissioner Earlean Collins, a Democrat whose district includes Chicago’s West Side and the western suburbs, said there could be a legal glitch to the plan. The state constitution doesn’t allow for an increase or decrease in pay during the term of an elected leader serving in local government.

But she said there is a loophole, including the possibility that elected leaders could sign off on the furlough days and pay back the county.

“Can I give up 10 days? Yes. Absolutely,” Collins said.

At last check, Preckwinkle’s administration was brokering a deal with the unions that would mean some 15,700 county employees – union and non-union alike – would take off 10 furlough days this year. The balance of the roughly 23,000 employees would not be subject to the cuts because they’re deemed “essential personnel,” which includes staff in the Sheriff’s Office, sources say.

The cost savings is estimated at about $38 million and part of a larger budget plan to streamline operations and refinance debt.

But the details were being worked out late Thursday. Commissioners are meeting Friday with the goal of voting on a final spending plan.

“It’s not stew yet,” said Peter N. Silvestri, a Northwest Side Republican.

He agrees that everyone needs to share in the pain but will reserve judgment until he sees the final plan.

That county furlough proposal could save hundreds of jobs, observers say.

In her $3 billion spending plan introduced earlier this month, Preckwinkle said that in order to close the half-billion-dollar budget gap, between 1,300 and 2,000 jobs would be cut.

Preckwinkle already cut her $170,000-a-year salary by 10 percent, said spokeswoman Jessey Neves. And the president would also be subject to the furlough days if the plan goes through, Neves said.

Preckwinkle is among 28 elected county government officials, which include the 17 commissioners.

So is Treasurer Maria Pappas who said of the proposal: “I’m going to try and cooperate with her, but it’s really hard when the little offices do their fair share and the others don’t.”

She wouldn’t point the finger, but the $105,000-a-year elected leader says her office met Preckwinkle’s call for 16 percent budget cuts while others haven’t.

Assessor Joe Berrios said he’ll gladly take the furlough days if it means saving jobs and so will subordinates, including his son and sister whom he hired after taking office in December.

“This is something where we can continue providing the services the people of Cook County count on and we’re keeping people in their jobs,” Berrios said.

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