Four Cook County commissioners on Monday laid out a plan to slash more than a third of the Forest Preserve District's staff and invest $100 million on improvements to the county's 68,000-acres of preserves, much of which the commissioners say is neglected.
Under the proposal, management cuts and restructuring would save nearly $13 million, which could be used to pay for $100 million in bonds to fund projects like cleaning up picnic groves and toilets, repairing trails and acquiring new land.
Commissioners Forrest Claypool, Michael Quigley, Anthony Peraica and Larry Suffredin unveiled the plan at a Monday news conference in downtown Chicago. In a report detailing the need for such changes, the commissioners called the Forest Preserve District a "bureaucratic, bloated, top-heavy organization that is neither transparent in its operations nor accountable in its practices."
They say the 473 forest preserve job cuts announced last fall spared management entirely, with most of the layoffs hitting low-ranking personnel who cleaned and maintained the preserves. The cuts, along with other changes, reduced the district's operating budget by 16%.
Under the commissioners latest plan, 184 management jobs-or 34% of the district's total workforce of 542-would be eliminated, shaving $11.3 million annually from the department's 2004 budget. The Forest Preserve District's 2003 budget is $141.7 million.
"These are cuts that make sense," Mr. Claypool said. "They duplicate existing functions at our sister government."
The plan calls for Cook County to take over policing, planning and development and financing for the Forest Preserve District. Non-critical positions in the headquarters office, such as the special events coordinator who is paid nearly $66,000 a year, also would be eliminated.
Savings from job cuts, shifting duties to the county and reorganizing the maintenance department would amount to $12.6 million a year, according to the proposal.
The commissioners plan to use the savings to pay for $100 million in bonds, the proceeds of which could be used for much-needed repairs and upgrades to the forest preserve, Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanical Gardens. The bonds are available to the forest preserve under Senate Bill 83, which is awaiting Gov. Rod Blagojevich's approval.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the bill is still under review. Mr. Blagojevich has 60 days from June 27, the date on which the bill arrived on his desk, to decide whether to sign it.
The commissioners plan to introduce their plan during the upcoming Cook County budget process, which begins after Labor Day. Nine of the 17 commissioners would have to vote in favor of the plan for it to be incorporated into the budget.
Mr. Claypool said he's optimistic the proposal will win support from the board, given "the enormity of the crisis."
"There's four of us supporting this right off the bat," he said. "We started working the phones today to get the votes we need."
Cook County Board President John Stroger was not available for comment. However, Albert Pritchett, acting superintendent of the Forest Preserve District, said Mr. Stroger "probably would not concur" with the commissioners' plan. "He feels the Forest Preserve District is functioning well," Mr. Pritchett said.
He said all of the district's employees are working hard to keep the forest preserves clean and the district running efficiently. He also disputed the commissioners' claims that the forest preserve department runs on a "bloated" budget.
"I've been in management for years, and I want someone to show me where the bloat is," Mr. Pritchett said. "Where is it?"
Mr. Pritchett has been head of the Cook County Forest Preserve since February, after former superintendent Joseph Nevius resigned. A permanent replacement could be named at a press conference scheduled Tuesday afternoon.
Stephen Packard, a member of the Friends of the Forest Preserves' executive committee, agrees changes are needed to clean up and expand the forest preserve. He said he hasn't read the commissioners' report and couldn't say whether it offers the right approach. Friends of the Forest Preserves is a non-profit group that supports land conservation and recreational uses of the county land.