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Cook County Jail guards lock down sweet union contract—despite sour budget mess

Sunday, February 11, 2018
Chicago Sun-Times
by Dan Mihalopoulos

Life is becoming at least a bit sweeter for the guards at the Cook County jail, even as county government slashes hundreds of jobs to plug the huge deficit caused by the repeal of the unpopular tax on sweetened beverages.

An analysis by county Sheriff Tom Dart’s office — which the Chicago Sun-Times obtained through the state’s open-records law — estimates that the burden on taxpayers will grow by $31.1 million over the next three years because of sweeteners in the collective-bargaining agreement that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration has negotiated with the jail guards’ union.


That would translate into an average of more than $10 million a year on top of the current annual personnel costs for jail guards of $220 million to $225 million, according to the sheriff’s office, which has criticized the recently approved deal.

According to the sheriff, the higher costs will include:

  • $11.7 million for “new entitlements,” including $8 million for automatic $1,000-a-year “roll call” bonuses.
  • $9.1 million for 2 percent wage hikes in fiscal year 2018, which began Dec. 1, and fiscal year 2019.
  • $5.1 million for “step increases” in pay this year and next year.
  • $5.1 million for “signing” bonuses for all members upon the contract’s approval; increased uniform allowances; and extra pay for members of special units.

Dart’s aides — who declined to comment for this column — projected total new costs of $7.1 million this year, $13.8 million next year and $10.2 million in 2020, the records show.

The documents from the sheriff present the first public cost estimates for taxpayers who ultimately have to foot the bill for the guards’ new contract.

The guards’ union leaders spoke months ago of brokering a “very fair” deal for its members with Preckwinkle. County commissioners have approved the agreement with the Teamsters local that represents nearly 3,500 workers at the jail.

Still, Preckwinkle aides won’t say exactly how sweet it now is to be a county jail guard — and how much they predict the contract will end up costing the county’s already-beleaguered taxpayers.

Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan says it’s still not time to release any of the administration’s calculations for the Teamsters Local 700 deal.

“The approved Teamsters 700 contract represents 3,400 out of 18,000 unionized county employees,” Shuftan said in a written statement to the Sun-Times. “It is one contract out of 82 we negotiate. We continue negotiating with all but a handful of the bargaining units, including another Teamsters bargaining unit, and we are cognizant that prematurely publicizing the full fiscal impact of one contract could harm the county’s negotiating position in trying to finalize other contracts.”

Shuftan also wouldn’t say much when asked how the administration planned to come up with the money — however much it will be, after all — for additional labor costs at the jail due to the new contract provisions.

“Because of the many contracts to be finalized . . . it is also premature to assess costs for even [the current fiscal year],” Shuftan said. “As a general statement, once the contracts are approved and final costs are calculated, the budget office would then determine how the county’s full operating budget might need to be adjusted to ensure adequate funding.

Preckwinkle is running for a third term this year. Her sole challenger in the Democratic primary in March is Bob Fioretti, a former 2nd Ward alderman who was fourth in the five-candidate mayoral election of 2015.

In a written statement Friday, Fioretti pointed to the tall stack of campaign cash the incumbent has gotten from the jail guards’ union and other Teamsters groups.

The Teamsters have given the Preckwinkle for President political committee a total of $215,550, including $68,900 from the jail guards’ local. Preckwinkle cashed the latest check from Local 700 — for $5,000 — last March, according to state campaign-finance reports filed by her re-election fund.

“Giving a sweetheart contract over the sheriff’s objections to one of her biggest contributors that costs Cook County taxpayers tens of millions of dollars crosses a line that is unconscionable,” Fioretti said.

The Preckwinkle re-election campaign’s spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The increased costs for the jail guards’ deal come as the county’s budget woes are intensifying.

Five revenue streams haven’t been as productive as Preckwinkle aides hoped, Sun-Times reporter Rachel Hinton revealed last month, citing internal county documents. Even the unpopular pop tax fell short of expectations during the few months it was collected, records show.

The new contract with the guards may not be enough to sour voters on Preckwinkle’s re-election bid.

But if the sheriff is shooting straight here, county taxpayers could experience a bitter aftertaste from the deal well into Preckwinkle’s next term.

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