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Cook OKs shutdown days to pass balanced budget

Saturday, February 26, 2011
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

The Cook County Board unanimously passed a balanced $3.1 billion 2011 budget early this morning, beating an end-of-February deadline, but instituting furloughs and countywide shutdown days to do it.

The budget, initially proposed by board President Toni Preckwinkle, accomplished her demand that it cut last year's $3.6 billion budget 16 percent, in part to address a $487 million deficit.

The final cuts came Friday night and into Saturday morning with a proposal for five furlough days for county employees, put forth by Preckwinkle's staff, and another five countywide shutdown days for non-vital services, put forth by McCook Democratic Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski.

It was expected to save $35 million, according to budget documents, contingent on union approval, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees given an extra week to reach a deal hinging on layoffs and furlough days.

“It puts the trades back to work,” Tobolski said, albeit in a spirit of shared sacrifice.

According to Preckwinkle's Chief of Staff Kurt Summers, the move would save an immediate 550 jobs, perhaps many more depending on union concessions, Tobolski said. County layoffs predicted to be 1,300 or more were to be limited to 750.

Evanston Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin called the extra period for AFSCME talks “a window for negotiation” that still allowed the budget to be passed before Monday's deadline.

The county shutdown days, scheduled around holidays, were set for April 22, May 27, July 1, Sept. 2 and Nov. 25. Police and hospitals would continue to operate, but courts would be on a weekend schedule, and other county offices would be closed.

“I want to thank all of you for your hard work the last three months,” Preckwinkle said of her first county budget.

“We broke a record, as you know,” said Democratic Chicago Commissioner John Daley, who pushed the process on until final adoption at about 4:30 a.m. Saturday.

The board's most raucous debate earlier in the day concerned the commissioners' own spending before the finance committee. By a 13-4 vote, the committee approved a proposal to end the old unequal system of commissioner budgets, which ranged from $320,000 to $460,000, and instead divide up a fund of almost $6 million, with $350,000 going to all 17 commissioners, including the $85,000 salary for each. In the process, the commissioners were reducing their overall fund 12 percent.

The equal divide drew complaints from long-term commissioners with senior staff and those with large districts requiring multiple offices.

Chicago Democrat Earlean Collins said it imposed unequal cuts on commissioners, with some actually increasing their budget allowance.

“How ... do you think we're going to get to parity?” Chicago Democratic Commissioner Deborah Sims said. “This budget is not fair, and there is no parity.”

Crestwood Democrat Joan Patricia Murphy called it “totally unfair” and said she'd be forced to lay off a “valuable employee.”

Orland Park Republican Commissioner Liz Gorman said it was a product of a divide between city and suburban commissioners, but Elmwood Park Republican Peter Silvestri dismissed that, pointing to how his district straddles the suburbs and Chicago and he supported an equal split.

In the end, the majority agreed to an equal divide, with only Collins, Murphy, Sims and Chicago Democrat Robert Steele opposed.

Even Gorman joined her fellow suburban Republicans in endorsing the split, although she introduced amendments to the measure later attempting to draw $460,000 from the budget of Clerk David Orr to pay for the commissioners' district offices.

Orr's office agreed to the deal, but the board did not, voting it down, 10-7, with Gorman the lone Republican joining Chicago Democrats in favor.

“They took my money,” Collins groaned afterward. “I found money, and they take it.”

The motion was reintroduced adding $10,000 to each commissioner's budget at a cost of $170,000, or more than $6 million overall, and passed, thus giving each a total of $360,000. The board diverted the rest of the money to reinstate the sheriff's graffiti unit, a move sponsored by Silvestri.

Earlier, by a 9-8 vote, the finance committee rejected a proposal by Chicago Democratic Commissioner John Fritchey to blend all interdepartmental technology workers into one finance unit under Chief Information Officer Greg Wass. Fritchey maintained it was a budgetary measure and did not impinge on the autonomy of countywide elected officials, like Treasurer Maria Pappas and Assessor Joseph Berrios, who raised objections at the last minute.

Most commissioners expressed support for the concept, which was likewise discussed by Preckwinkle on the campaign trail and in her transition report, but gave in to misgivings by state's attorney liaison Patrick Driscoll Jr., who expressed “serious concerns” about the unit infringing on the constitutionally elected officials.




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