County budget includes unpaid days off, sales tax rollbackDeal with unions eases pain, though some layoffs projected
Saturday, February 26, 2011
by Hal Dardick
In past years, the Cook County Board has approved controversial pay raises and a major sales tax increase at an hour when most people were sleeping.
time, county commissioners' middle-of-the-night session ended up with
pay cuts for many employees and a plan to get rid of the rest of that
unpopular sales tax increase.
At the conclusion of a 19-hour meeting that ended at 4:20 a.m. Saturday, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle won unanimous approval of a $3.05 billion budget to score her first major success as the new leader of county government.
overwhelming support came in part because of a deal struck with union
leaders to have thousands of county workers take 10 unpaid days off this
year. As a result, the county plans to lay off about 550 fewer workers.
About 750 layoffs still are projected, however.
commissioners applauded in a solemn fashion after the final budget vote
was taken. Minutes earlier, slap-happy commissioners, county workers and
union leaders were telling jokes and laughing as Commissioner Robert
Steele streamed music from his iPad through the chamber's sound system.The meeting lasted so long mostly
because Preckwinkle and commissioners spent hours during frequent
breaks meeting with unions, most of whom agreed to deals that would
require most of the county's workforce of about 23,000 to take 10
unpaid days off this year.
Five of those would be unpaid days
selected by the workers. The others would come on county "shutdown
days," when county offices and most courtrooms would be closed. Workers
at the jail, in the sheriff's police department, at county hospitals and
at emergency and bond courts would report to work.
will share the pain by taking 10 unpaid days off, which amounts to a 3.8
percent pay cut from their $85,000 salaries. Preckwinkle already had
taken a 10 percent pay cut to set the tone for her administration.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
did not immediately agree to the 10 unpaid days, but it plans to make a
decision by March 11, Preckwinkle said. If the union were to accept,
"it is possible that there will be fewer layoffs," she added.
marathon meeting that ends in the wee hours is part of county political
history. Weeks after the November 1994 election, the lame-duck County
Board voted for much-criticized pay raises at about 1:15 a.m. In 2008,
the board narrowly approved a controversial 1-percentage-point sales tax
increase shortly after midnight.
That tax hike resurfaced at the
start of Friday's meeting. The board began with the surprise approval of
a measure to repeal the rest of the sales tax increase by the start of
2013. The county sales tax will drop by a quarter-cent on the dollar on
Jan. 1, 2012. It will go down by another quarter-cent on Jan. 1, 2013.
vote for repeal was 12-5, with the "no" votes coming from commissioners
who represent areas where more residents rely on the
taxpayer-subsidized public health system. Opponents said the tax cut
could worsen the county's chronic money woes.
"I appreciate their
concerns, but I don't share them," Preckwinkle said of the rollback
opponents. "I think that we're going to be able to restructure county
government and to make efficiencies and look at innovative ideas that
will enable us to operate more effectively and at least cost."
last year's campaign, Preckwinkle pledged to roll back the remaining
half of the penny on the dollar sales tax increase championed by Todd Stroger, the unpopular incumbent president she defeated in the Democratic primary.
county's budget shortfall — estimated by Preckwinkle at $487 million —
stems in part from last year's rollback of the other half of the sales
To close that gap, the county will rely on the
layoffs, other spending cuts, department consolidation, long-term debt
refinancing, short-term borrowing, collection of unpaid taxes, some fee
increases and the tapping of surplus funds.
But Preckwinkle has
acknowledged more fundamental change will be needed in the coming years,
as the rest of the sales tax increase goes away. The
half-percentage-point increase yielded about $200 million a year.
going to try to change the way in which we buy goods and services," she
said. "There are a number of things that are under way which we hope
will involve significant changes in the way the county does business and
savings to the county and taxpayers."
In her first 100 days,
Preckwinkle has fired many of Stroger's top operatives, consolidated
government operations and ordered a review of spending on construction
projects and equipment purchases. She also made an ally of Finance
Committee Chairman John Daley, D-Chicago, who made the rounds with her
to push her budget plans.
Preckwinkle has twisted the arms of fellow Democratic elected officials, including State's Attorney Anita Alvarez
and Sheriff Tom Dart. That led to some heated moments when Dart and
Alvarez resisted initial calls to cut their budgets by 16 percent and 10
Dart sarcastically suggested he could run
the jail, patrol unincorporated areas on his bicycle and guard
courthouses all by himself, and Alvarez said the cuts would have a
devastating effect on prosecuting criminals.
But unlike Stroger,
in each case Preckwinkle negotiated deals that involved the sheriff and
prosecutor taking on extra duties previously handled by outside firms in
exchange for lesser cuts. Alvarez eventually agreed to lay off about 25
lawyers, instead of 58, and Dart agreed to up to 100 layoffs, less than
In the end, Preckwinkle got something Stroger never did: a unanimous vote for her spending plan.