A battle over furlough days on the Cook County Board took a sharp turn Thursday as two commissioners pledged to try to cut the office budgets of any of their colleagues who refuse to take the unpaid days off.
The public pressure appeared to be working as two of the five commissioners who said they weren’t going to abide by the 10 days off without pay — as most of the 23,000 county workers are — are now re-thinking that decision.
And the rhetoric also heated up, with Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin blasting the furlough naysayers as “Strogerites, through and through” — prompting Commissioner William Beavers to fire back that Suffredin was “an idiot” and “a misfit.”
But if Beavers was digging in his heals on his refusal to take the unpaid days, commissioners Robert Steele and Joan Murphy were not.
They told Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle’s office Thursday they would take the days off without pay, a source in the president’s office said.
Murphy told the Sun-Times Thursday night that the whole episode had become a public relations nightmare, and her offices were inundated with calls from angry constituents.
“I am reconsidering,” Murphy said. “The general public thinks we’re bad guys for not doing it. I heard it from my constituents ‘You think you’re better than we are’ — they were calling my office all day,” she said.
Both Murphy and Steele said they felt, too, they needed to stand with the thousands of union workers who agreed to the 10 days off without pay to save jobs.
“I’m making the decision now to take the furlough days because I made the commitment to several unions to save their members, and if they went along with it, I would work hard to save their jobs,” Steele told the Sun-Times by phone Thursday night.
The 10 days without pay was part of the larger 2011 budget deal passed unanimously by the 17 members of the County Board earlier this year. But five publicly revealed in recent days that they weren’t going to take what amounts to a pay cut — with several calling the move “illegal.”
The Illinois Constitution doesn’t allow for an increase or decrease in pay during the term of an elected leader serving in local government. That doesn’t prevent commissioners from voluntarily electing to give up some of their pay.
County commissioners earn $85,000 annually, so the cuts would have amounted to about $4,000.
But in recent days, Murphy, Steele, Beavers, and commissioners Deborah Sims and Earlean Collins — all Democrats — said publicly they weren’t going to do it.
That prompted Suffredin, a North Side and suburban Democrat and Commissioner Gregg Goslin, a Northwest suburban Republican, to call for hitting all five of them where it hurts: In their office budgets next year.
“We unanimously approved this budget — you can’t come back nine months later and say, ‘Hey we’re not going to do it,’” Goslin said, referring to the 10 unpaid days off that were part of the 2011 budget package.
“So we’ll take it out of their budget next year, and we have the majority of votes to do it, I firmly believe that,” Goslin said.
Suffredin added: “These five commissioners make the process look stupid, and we all look stupid. To say ‘You all have to take these 10 days off [without pay], but we’re not’ — it’s slapping all county workers in the face,” he said.
He also suggested this was some kind of political payback by a group of “Strogerites” on the board — a reference to former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who lost his re-election bid to Preckwinkle.
“All five of them were Strogerites, through and through,” Suffredin said, taking particular aim at Beavers, a long-time ally of Stroger’s.
“I think this is Beavers seeing the opportunity to throw a stick in to President Preckwinkle’s eye,” Suffredin said.
Reached by phone Thursday night, Beavers said he’ll stand by his decision to not take the 10 days off without pay and called Suffredin “an idiot.”
“They’re not going to be able to cut nothing out of my budget. OK? They’re not going to be able to cut nothing. Suffredin is a misfit. He’s an idiot.”
On Thursday, Collins dismissed her colleagues aiming to hit her office budget.
“They can do what they want, it doesn’t matter. It won’t affect me. I know the law.”
Sims couldn’t be reached for comment.