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County budget includes unpaid days off, sales tax rollback
Deal with unions eases pain, though some layoffs projected

Saturday, February 26, 2011
Chicago Tribune
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.

This 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.

The 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.

Tired 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.

Commissioners 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.

The 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.

The 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."

During 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.

The 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 tax increase.

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.

"We're 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 percent, respectively.

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 first anticipated.

In the end, Preckwinkle got something Stroger never did: a unanimous vote for her spending plan.

hdardick@tribune.com



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