County Board passes Stroger's budget
Friday, February 23, 2007
by Mickey Ciokajlo
The Cook County Board approved rookie President Todd Stroger's $3 billion budget plan early Friday in a flurry of post-midnight votes following a day of closed-door negotiations and political speechmaking.
The 2007 budget includes the layoffs of more than 1,000 county workers and cuts at the county's three hospitals and 26 health clinics. Stroger has said the cost-cutting, including closing 13 of the clinics, was needed to fix a $500 million deficit without raising taxes.
But Stroger was forced to restore some cuts to the Cook County Sheriff and other departments during a series of private meetings Thursday with individual commissioners. He made up for the changes with new cuts, including some management-level jobs. The revised plan was approved 13-4 at about 2:30 a.m.
"I think it's leading the county in the right direction,'' Stroger said as the voting continued early Friday. "But it's also not a great day when we have to lay off people."
Many commissioners balked at Stroger's original plan and lined up behind an alternative proposal pushed by Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) that would cut more management-level workers while restoring some frontline services.
With a Feb. 28 deadline for passing the budget looming, commissioners met Thursday morning to consider amendments to both spending plans. But they had barely convened in public before recessing, and for the rest of the day commissioners were seen shuttling from one office to another for private meetings.
Both Stroger and Claypool sought to lobby undecided commissioners with offers to alter their plans in an attempt to get the nine-vote majority necessary to pass a budget.
But late Thursday, when it become obvious that Stroger had the votes he needed, the Claypool camp called their proposal for a vote doomed to defeat. That gave each commissioner the chance to explain their position on the budget in front of a standing-room-only crowd that included sheriff's deputies, nurses and other county workers.
Claypool and commissioners Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago), Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) and Timothy Schneider (R-Bartlett) voted against Stroger's budget.
The showdown was the first major political test for the new president, who inherited a budget deficit when he was elected in November to replace his father, and longtime Board President John Stroger, who suffered a stroke last March.
The county has sent layoff notices to nearly 1,000 doctors, public defenders, sheriff's deputies and other workers in anticipation of the board vote. The layoff notices are not final and can be rescinded depending on the budget's final form.
Stroger has engaged in a public relations war with other countywide elected officials and some commissioners who claim his plan would cut too deeply into necessary services while protecting his favored employees.
Stroger called State's Atty. Richard Devine and Sheriff Tom Dart, two of his critics, "prima donnas" who complained loudly but had not done enough to reduce costs in their operations.
The sheriff's office has sent out notices to more than 600 sheriff's employees, letting them know that they would lose their jobs under Stroger's budget proposal.
Steve Mayberry, Stroger's spokesman, has said notices were sent to 347 doctors, nurse managers and other employees. Those notices can be rescinded if funding is restored, he said.
Unions representing many of the workers have been among the most vocal critics of Stroger's plan and have stacked public hearings at which commissioners were deluged with angry comments about service cuts.
Twelve of the board's 17 commissioners last week proposed wide-reaching changes to Stroger's budget that would cut highly paid workers while restoring some frontline services.
Stroger has offered to reduce some of his cuts, even while contending it is up to commissioners to find their own cuts if they don't like his plan. As a candidate he pledged not to raise county taxes, but he has not said whether he would veto a tax increase if the County Board passed one.