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Wendt plans budget ‘rebuttal’ to ask for more staff in hearing for fractured Board of Review

Tuesday, October 26, 2021
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

The stage is set for Tuesday’s budget hearing as a public forum for the intensifying dispute between Cook County Board of Review Comm. Tammy Wendt (D-1) [right] and her counterparts, Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3) [center] and Comm. Michael Cabonargi (D-2).

Cook County commissioners are set on Tuesday to hear two competing budget proposals for the Cook County Board of Review in the latest sign of tension between the board’s veterans and its newest commissioner.

The Board of Review, which processes appeals from property owners who want to challenge assessments by the county assessor’s office, is in line for a modest budget uptick under county board President Toni Preckwinkle’s 2022 spending proposal. Its headcount is set to grow from 142 to 151 budgeted full-time positions, raising the board’s overall budget to nearly $15.7 million.

The allocation precisely matches the budget request that the board submitted to county finance officials in July. It would provide for salary increases and three additional analysts for each commissioner: one to focus on residential properties, one for commercial properties and one to contest appeals to the state’s Property Tax Appeals Board.

While the board has “created efficiencies” to boost productivity, the “effectiveness of the technology has reached its peak” as the board braces for an estimated record of more than 291,000 appeals driven by Chicago landlords whose properties are being reassessed this year, according to a memo Board of Review Secretary Jim Thompson wrote to commissioners in July.

Unfortunately, the only solution is a modest $600,000 investment in 9 new [full-time equivalent positions] to help subside the potential massive increase in volume based on these market factors,” Thompson wrote in the memo obtained by The Daily Line.

But Comm. Tammy Wendt (D-1) will give a “rebuttal” budget presentation on Tuesday in a play to add all nine new positions to her own staff, her chief of staff Todd Thielmann told The Daily Line. He called it a matter of “equity,” saying Wendt’s existing staff is far smaller than those of her counterparts Comm. Michael Cabonargi (D-2) and Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3).

Wendt will also call into question a series of pay raises proposed for senior staff, including a raise for Thompson from about $129,000 to $138,000. Thielmann called the raises for the Secretary and Chief Clerk positions “disheartening” and “outrageous,” saying they were never discussed with Wendt.

But Board of Review Chief Deputy Comm. William O’Shields responded in a statement Monday that the proposed changes “are included in the budget that all the Commissioners and Staff reviewed and approved in July after many meetings to discuss our budget needs.”

“Both the Chief Clerk and the Secretary were long overdue for raises, which were arrived at by looking at job performance, responsibilities, and industry salary comps,” O’Shields wrote.

And as far as staffing allocations, O’Shields said the commissioners had long “agreed that any new positions, which are funded by the American Rescue Plan, would be split evenly among the Commissioners.” He added that Wendt’s staff size would eclipse those of her counterparts if she got all nine new positions.

Staffing allocations have been a source of conflict at the Board of Review before. Wendt’s predecessor, Comm. Dan Patlak, complained in 2018 that his staff was being shortchanged before the dispute was ultimately resolved.

Wendt has lamented since her December 2020 swearing-in of being alienated by Cabonargi and Rogers. Thielmann filed a complaint in April with Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office alleging that her peers have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by making policy decisions in private and without her knowledge. Cabonargi and Rogers have denied the charge, saying they disagree with her reading of the law.

Related: Board of Review runs afoul of state transparency laws, Wendt charges: ‘They want to…operate in the dark’

At the same time, Cabonargi and Rogers have drawn attention to Wendt’s open violation of county nepotism rules by hiring Thielmann, who is her first cousin, as her chief of staff. The two commissioners advanced a policy change in June to formalize the nepotism rules for the Board of Review.

Wendt “wasted no time in securing an 11% raise for Thielmann as her Chief of Staff” after she came into office, O’Shields wrote in his statement.

Thielmann “is now the fourth highest paid employee at the Board making $150,000 annually despite not having any prior relevant experience, and—quite significantly—his employment violates the County’s ethics clause because he is Commissioner Wendt’s first cousin,” O’Shields wrote.

Cook County Health

Budget hearings are set to kick off at 9 a.m. Tuesday with a review of the $3.9 billion 2022 budget on tap for the sprawling Cook County Health system. The spending plan, approved by the health system’s independent Board of Directors earlier this year, would add hundreds of new staffers to boost the health system’s mental health and nursing programs.

Related: Cook County Health rolls out expanded $3.9B budget plan: ‘We must return to pre-pandemic care’

The budget would add 758 new full-time positions to the Cook County Health payroll, bringing its total budgeted headcount to 7,561, budget documents show.

The added funding will provide for 466 new staff positions and expanded neurology, cardiology and cancer treatment services at Stroger Hospital, health system CEO Israel Rocha said in an August budget address. Another 100 positions will be added at Provident, which plans to boost surgeries and expand its colonoscopy program.

Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki gave a sneak peek Monday at some of the services set to be added under the health system budget, including an expansion of emergency and in-patient capacity at Provident Hospital. County leaders faced heat last year for downgrading Provident’s Emergency Department to a “stand-by” facility.

Related: Cook County Health leaders to defend layoffs, mergers as long-term hospital costs skyrocket

Public Defender

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell’s office is in line for a budget boost of about 4 percent, pulling its projected 2022 spending to about $84.1 million. The boost will provide for 52 additional full-time equivalent positions, spanning its payroll to 750 total employees.

The staffing boost will provide for 20 additional line attorneys, six new records clerks, six paralegals and a wide range of other positions, according to a presentation Mitchell is set to give on Tuesday. Public defenders’ existing caseloads are far exceeding national standards, according to the presentation.

County Clerk

Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s office is set for a dramatic expansion next year, growing from a $56.4 million budget to more than $76.5 million thanks in part to an $8.8 million infusion of American Rescue Plan funds.

However, the added funding will not translate to a boost in staffing. Instead, the office is on track to net a loss of two full-time equivalent positions, leaving it with 348 staffers. But existing staffers will see a combined $2.7 million in salary and benefit hikes. Another $7.9 million in new funds are lined up for “capital equipment and improvements” at the Clerk’s office.

Clerk of the Circuit Court

The budget of Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez’s office is set to grow by about 4 percent under their proposed budget for next year, bringing its total spending to nearly $125.3 million for 2022. The office is in line for 93 new full-time positions, bringing its headcount to 1,479, including 25 slots directly funded by American Rescue Plan funds.

Staffing boosts would include 60 new courtroom clerk positions, five new staffers in financial management and seven more positions in the office’s Inspector General division, nearly doubling the size of that team.

Former Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown long complained of staff shortages among court clerks, even as her office struggled to fill large numbers of vacancies.

Related: Brown asks for budget boost to reverse ‘untenable’ drop in court clerks

Rizki said Monday that the county will be forced to hire hundreds of new staffers in its court offices to manage the gradual reopening of the county’s court facilities.

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