Forest Preserve Budget Gets OK
Thursday, December 11, 2003
by Kristen McQueary
Reformers on the Cook County Board blocked passage of the county budget earlier this week, but they lost overwhelmingly Wednesday in their campaign to overhaul the forest preserve district.
Commissioners approved 12 to 4 the 2004 forest preserve budget presented by President John Stroger. Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-17th) of Orland Park voted "present."
Commissioners rejected 19 amendments from four commissioners who wanted to reduce management in the forest preserves, beef up the number of laborers, reorganize the forest preserve police force and scale down the recreation department.
Sponsors of the amendments said their plan would eliminate the need for a tax increase.
The approved budget includes a 1.35 percent increase in the tax levy, which would add about 32 cents to the tax bill on a $150,000 home.
The budget also includes a program to improve public washrooms and creates a citizen volunteer corps to keep groves clean.
Though commissioners praised the amendments brought forth by Democrats Forrest Claypool (D-12th) of Chicago, Mike Quigley (D-10th) of Chicago, Larry Suffredin (D-13th) of Evanston and Republican Anthony Peraica (R-16th) of Riverside, they instead voted in line with Stroger's plan, giving new forest preserve Supt. Steve Bylina more discretion to reform the district himself.
But first, Bylina will have to comply with nearly 13 studies the board approved during six hours of debate.
The studies touch on many reforms offered by the four commissioners, including requests that Bylina compare pay scales of forest preserve police to other municipal departments and analyze potential waste in the management and maintenance staffs of the district.
So many studies were approved that Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-1st) of Chicago filed a last-minute amendment to study the cost of all the studies.
"These studies are going to cost time, and time is money," she said. "(Bylina) will be bogged down the rest of the year doing all these studies."
The amendments, meanwhile, would have eliminated dozens of specific jobs in the forest preserve district, including drastic reductions in the recreation department. Sponsors of the amendment said the recreation department staff is "erratically disproportionate" to its responsibilities.
They called for the elimination of numerous superintendents in the maintenance department, pointing to one person on the payroll until recently who was 92 years old, rarely seen and had a driver assigned to him.
At times, debate in the county boardroom got feisty and personal.
Claypool said the studies requested were useless because the forest preserve staff, led by Stroger-appointee Bylina, would be compiling them. Even as Claypool and others praised Bylina, they implied he would be trapped by a heavy-handed administration.
"We're the only ones who can put people to work in the fields cleaning toilets that are so despicably filthy that the public can't even use them without gagging," shouted Claypool. "We have the power to do that. Steve Bylina doesn't have the power to do that. We do. We're the ones who can stop property tax increases that are necessary because politicians want jobs for the friends, relatives and cronies."
Stroger chided his critics for their purported hypocrisy.
"I've been around a long time. I know how all you got your jobs. I've followed you," he said. "It doesn't make you a bad person just because you're a member of a political organization."
Stroger's ally on the board, Commissioner Jerry Butler (D-3rd) of Chicago, agreed, saying he was "snickering" to himself because "B.S. amuses me."
Nearly six hours into the meeting, a majority of commissioners voted to back the budget. They trusted Bylina's record of aggressiveness so far in reforming the district, they said.
"Let Mr. Bylina work and not be confined to countering (bad) press," Gorman said. "If he stumbles, let's not hold a press conference and put constraints on our own guy. He's a product of this board. Quit mud-slinging from within."
When Bylina was asked if he thought he had the power to hire and fire on his own, he said: "I believe I have that authority and I intend to use it."
Southtown politics writer Kristen McQueary can be reached at (708) 633-5972 or email@example.com.