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Cook County OKs $3 billion budget, government shutdown

Saturday, February 26, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County government will shut down five days this year as part of a cost-cutting, job-saving $3 billion budget plan approved during a marathon meeting that concluded early Saturday morning.

With the exception of the jail, some courts and the taxpayer-funded health and hospital system — or any office providing “vital services” — county government would be shuttered for five days beyond the regularly scheduled holidays, according to a deal approved unanimously by the 17 county commissioners at 4:25 a.m. Saturday. That’s more than 19 hours after the budget meeting first began.

Some 15,000 “non-essential personnel,” from elected leaders to court clerks, would take the time, plus another five days off work without pay.

In total, the 10 days off would not only save an estimated $35 million but also 550 employees whose jobs were on the chopping block.

“I think it’s one thing where just about everyone has buy-in. The elected [officials] have agreed, most of the unions have agreed — this is a way to save these jobs,” said Commissioner Robert Steele, a West Side Democrat.

Preckwinkle told her colleagues on the county she was grateful for their support for this, her inaugural county budget.

“I want to thank all of you for all of your hard work over the last three months and particularly your patience and forbearance this evening,” said Preckwinkle, who took office in December.

Commissioner Gregg Goslin, a Northwest suburban Republican, said he’s personally prepared for 10 days without pay.

“It’s the kind of creative approach we need to solve this budget problem,” he said.

There will still be hundreds of layoffs, commissioners say.

But it’s less than the 1,000-plus County Board President Toni Preckwinkle predicted when she first laid out her $3 billion budget proposal, which included a plan to close a $487 million deficit.

Preckwinkle and her staff have been working in recent days with officials of the various labor unions to broker a deal that would call for a series of unpaid days off.

Among the exceptions was the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employess Council 31, which balked at the furloughs for its roughly 5,000 workers in the offices of the public defender, state’s attorney and probation department, along with the health and hospital system. Between 400 and 500 had been slated for layoffs.

“Furloughs are effectively a pay cut,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall stated in an email. “AFSCME represents many county employees who live paycheck to paycheck, and who simply can’t afford a cut in pay. As it stands, due to the negligence of the previous county administration that dragged out contract negotiations, these workers have not had a pay increase for nearly three years,” he stated.

“AFSCME believes every effort should be made to avoid layoffs and furloughs alike, and we stand ready to work with the county to do so.”

Late Friday, Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a North Side Democrat, said AFSCME — in talks with Preckwinkle’s staff — will get a two-week extension to negotiate not only the proposed unpaid 10 days for their employees but also the labor union’s expired contract.

Henry Bayer, executive director of Local 31, declined comment during a break in the budget meeting Friday night.

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