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Raises create challenge for Cook County’s 2013 budget

Monday, July 02, 2012
Daily Herald
by Jake Griffin

Pay raises ranging between 6 percent and 8.5 percent for the majority of Cook County employees this year are creating budget challenges for 2013.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s preliminary budget projects maintaining current government services could cost an additional $91.7 million if department heads and other countywide officeholders have their way.

Preckwinkle, in her proposed budget, puts the increase at $46.5 million and says cost-cutting measures, like a proposed partial hiring freeze, could further reduce that.

“It comes down to personnel,” said Andrea Gibson, Preckwinkle’s budget director. “There were no wage increases from 2008 to 2012 because the collective bargaining process ground to a halt.”

Law enforcement personnel were generally the recipients of the higher pay raises, Gibson said. Other union workers and even nonunion employees received smaller pay bumps.

The raises were added incrementally this year. The next fiscal year will be the first in which the county will have to pay for a full year’s worth of these new, higher salaries.

This spike in salaries combined with anticipated declining revenues from patient billing fees at the county’s hospital system and another quarter-percent rollback of the county’s sales tax Jan. 1 create a $267.5 million funding gap in the preliminary 2013 budget, Gibson said.

Last week, Preckwinkle said she planned to close the gap in part by not hiring replacements for county workers who retire in 2013, unless hiring reduces overtime costs.

The county’s departmental expenses are expected to come in at $2.20 billion when the fiscal year ends Nov. 30. That’s about $31 million less than what was originally budgeted by the county board. However, department heads anticipated expenses for 2013 totaling almost $2.3 billion. Preckwinkle’s office believes that number is closer to a little more than $2.25 billion.

“We asked (department heads) to report back with the cost of maintaining current operations and project them forward, but there were a number who requested new things. This was not supposed to be a request for a bunch of new stuff,” Gibson said.

Some department heads presented 2013 requests that were millions of dollars above what Preckwinkle thinks they should spend.

Assessor Joe Berrios’ office is expected to spend $21.5 million this year, but he said he would need $28.5 next year. Preckwinkle’s office set Berrios’ anticipated 2013 costs at around $24.8 million.

Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for Berrios’ office, attributed the increase to a salary hike and to upgrades to the office’s computer system “which will tie the entire county together by utilizing a ‘cloud’ computing system. This system will increase efficiency and save money.”

Gibson said Berrios’ preliminary budget calls for additional staffing for positions that currently aren’t filled.

“If they’re not filled now, we’re not assuming the need to fill them next year,” she said.

Each of the 17 county board commissioners is budgeted $360,000 to run his or her office, except Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, of Chicago. Daley receives a $500,606 budget because of the extra work created by that committee leadership assignment. However, this year Daley is on pace to spend less than any of the commissioners.

“I don’t have a district office, and I was allocated three or four positions for the finance committee that I left empty,” he said.

The county’s preliminary budget also highlights several “special purpose funds” with significant surpluses. State law limits what these funds can be used for, but county officials are backing attempts to draft legislation that would loosen those limitations. Next year, county officials estimate special purpose fund surpluses for animal control, treasurer’s office technology upgrades, geographical information systems and the TB Sanitarium District will total more than $50 million.

“A measure passed the Senate last session, but not the House that would expand the purpose of the TB fund, animal control and the GIS funds,” Gibson said.

County Treasurer Maria Pappas said the surplus in her office’s “Tax Sales Automation Fund” goes toward technology upgrades that make it easier for taxpayers to pay property taxes and access records. The revenue that streams into this fund comes from banks that pay $5 per client to access the treasurer’s computer system and pay property taxes out of mortgages electronically. That fund is expected to generate $7.6 million next year, but Pappas estimates spending $9.4 million for technology upgrades. That would leave more than $12 million in the fund at the end of next year.

“We get this money every year, and it’s the state’s attorney’s opinion that this money can only be used for automating this office,” Pappas said.



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