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County Board not calling for end of contingency fund perk

Saturday, February 25, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Some call it a slush fund. Others call it contingency money to reimburse Cook County Commissioners for a range of so-called work-related expenses — from newspaper subscriptions to fuel to school tuition.

Whatever its name, no one’s beating down the door to get rid of the perk — even after Cook County Commissioner William Beavers was indicted Thursday for allegedly failing to report or pay taxes on money he pocketed.

“I think we should have it — it’s just $400 a month I receive,” said Commissioner Robert Steele, a Democrat whose district straddles the city’s West and South sides. “I use it for the parking ... at community meetings. I don’t use it for my bills or my car note. I know some of my colleagues use if for their education, I use it for the work I do around Cook County,” he said. “How does Cook County benefit from you getting another degree?”

In the final quarter of 2011, Commissioner Liz Gorman received $2,029.92 in “tuition” reimbursement, according to county records. The southwest suburban Republican said late Friday that the reimbursement is for a state-administered course on tax assessments so she could assist constituents trying to appeal their tax bills.

“This is the biggest issue we have going now, with the economy and I believe it’s something beneficial for all my constituents,” Gorman said.

A 2008 Fox 32 report on the contingency funds detailed lax oversight of the then $1,200-a-month available to commissioners in addition to their $85,000 salary.

A year earlier, Beavers’ expense report contained just one sentence: “Commissioner Beavers will claim his FY 2007 contingency as income.”

In 2009, county commissioners approved a new ordinance, prohibiting commissioners from using it as income and offering stricter guidelines for expense reports. Any reimbursement requests are vetted by the county’s ethics board director before a check is cut and a report of the expense report is put online.

Today, commissioners must pull the reimbursement money from their $360,000 office budgets, money largely set aside for salaries. The $1,200 monthly limit no longer applies. It’s up to commissioners to argue for how much they need.

This year, six of the commissioners — or little more than one-third of the 17-member board — have opted out of using taxpayer money for contingencies. While commissioners Gorman and Deborah Sims, a South Side and suburban Democrat, are budgeted to spend the most — $16,800 a piece — on contingencies, according to budget records provided by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office.

Gorman says the county pays for a portion of her car note, since she uses the vehicle for county business.

“I have one of the most gerrymandered districts out there — so I’ll going all over for meetings, not to mention I have to travel from Orland to Chicago” for meetings at the downtown county building, she said.

Sims wasn’t available for comment. But North suburban Commissioner Larry Suffredin said: “I think it should be reined in. I don’t use mine.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who as a one-time Cook County commissioner pushed for the reforms, says that maybe it’s time to ax the reimbursement plan.

“They should consider getting rid of it,” he said of the contingency money. “Especially considering all the other budget cuts. At this point - it’s so tainted. I don’t think people trust the process. I don’t know if it’s salvageable at all.”

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