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Federally backed hiring surge, lagging tech upgrades take spotlight as county budget hearings kick off

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

Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki [left] answered questions from Comm. John Daley (D-11) and others during budget hearings on Monday.

Cook County commissioners signaled plans on Monday to give a thorough vetting to the nearly 1,600 new positions that county board President Toni Preckwinkle is proposing to add to the county’s payroll next year — especially as the county leaders look to fill an untold backlog of vacant positions already on the books.

The budget plan rolled out by Preckwinkle earlier this month would skyrocket the county’s tally of full-time employee positions from 21,877 to 23,467, reaching its highest staffing level since 2015. The added titles include 226 positions whose salaries would be directly furnished by the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Cook County is in line for about $1 billion in direct federal stimulus from the law, $333 million of which is set to be spent in Fiscal Year 2022.

Related: Preckwinkle promises big new hiring, spending that ‘won’t burden the taxpayer’ in $8B budget plan for 2022

The county’s Bureau of Finance is poised to see 70 new staff positions, most of which will be paid for by federal funds. They’ll help address “increased demand” from county officials and suburban municipalities for “support services” to help them direct the gush of federal resources headed their way, county Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki told commissioners Monday.

“To address that, we’re asking for some additional investments to ensure we can provide those critical services to all our stakeholders as efficiently and sustainably as possible,” Rizki said.

Nearly all the federally backed hires are set to materialize within various offices directly under Preckwinkle’s control, including 55 new positions lined up for the county’s Bureau of Technology. Those hires will help the county beef up its cybersecurity and better prepare it to bounce back from blackouts and other crises, technology Bureau Chief Tom Lynch said Monday.

County leaders will also tap the federal funds to provide nine new employee positions for the Cook County Board of Review, 23 for the Office of the Chief Judge and 25 for the Clerk of the Circuit Court. The added court hires are intended to shore up the county’s “core operations as our courts continue to reopen to full service in FY22,” county Budget Director Annette Guzman said Monday.

Rizki and Guzman plan to host a separate follow-up hearing on Thursday to go over their plans for the county’s spending of American Rescue Plan dollars. But multiple commissioners on Monday said they were already eager for answers — especially Comm. Sean Morrison (R-17), who said he wanted to hear each county office “justify” all the new positions it would get under Preckwinkle’s budget proposal.

“I’m just a little surprised that we need to add 1,700 employees to Cook County government given this moment in time,” Morrison said. “They need to be justified.”

Morrison sent a letter to Board of Commissioners Finance Committee chair Comm. John Daley (D-11) later on Monday asking all county offices to “submit in writing all new positions budgeted for FY 2022, their need for the position, and each job’s function/duty.”

“If permanent positions will initially be funded by a temporary revenue source, please identify how these permanent positions will be funded once temporary funds have been expended,” his letter adds.

Daley, meanwhile, pushed finance officials for more clarity on how many existing county employee slots are currently unfilled. He said he plans to ask each county office for its tally of vacant positions and pushed Guzman to deliver a report counting the total number of vacant positions across the county.

“I know we’re having an extremely hard time filling vacancies — not only us, but throughout the country,” Daley said. He noted that the county even had lingering vacancies in some seasonal positions, a first in his nearly three decades on the board.

Rizki attributed the hiring challenges to “the economic circumstances we’re facing,” citing the labor shortage gripping multiple sectors across the country. But he added that county offices are setting up “special programs” like recruiting events that “will hopefully make things better.”

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office now has 40 vacancies, Kaegi told commissioners during his budget hearing on Monday. Preckwinkle’s budget proposal would hold the assessor’s office steady at 276 full-time positions.

The assessor’s office is partnering with schools as part of a wider effort to “bring in young and diverse talent” to make up for a recent surge of retirements, Kaegi said. The office made 31 new hires last year but lost 27 staffers to defections or retirements during the same period.

“We have a plan to hire into the vacancies that we have,” Chief Deputy Assessor Sarah Garza Resnick said, adding that the office is looking to stretch salaries “so that we can attract more people — especially to our more technical positions that are really hard to compete for.”

Tyler technology upgrade update

Streamlining human resources technology could be one way to speed up hiring, Lynch of the Bureau of Technology told commissioners on Monday.

“Part of the problem from a systematic standpoint with the recruiting process is that there are…several different systems in place within different offices,” Lynch said. “So we’re looking to have a unified solution that is enterprise-wide so the experience for the user is easier — so if they apply to one office, they’ll be able to apply to multiple offices.”

The technology bureau is also working to oversee the county’s far-reaching and long-overdue campaign to update its software to a new suite of services offered by Texas-based Tyler Technologies. The firm signed a $36 million contract with Cook County in 2017 with a goal of completing the switch by this year.

Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez’s office is on pace to complete its switch from the county’s 40-year-old “mainframe” to Tyler’s Odyssey case management system by the end of this year, and offices under Preckwinkle’s authority are set to make the transition by early next year, Lynch said. The “tax offices” led by Keagi, Treasurer Maria Pappas and the county Board of Review are set to finalize their transitions by 2023.

But Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office haven’t yet begun to move off the aging mainframe, meaning they won’t likely complete a switch to new software until at least 2024, Lynch said.

Pappas has repeatedly aired frustration with the delay and has called into question Tyler’s ability to oversee the switch. During her office’s budget hearing on Monday, Pappas said county offices are still “running systems that we shouldn’t be running.”

“This is almost four years late,” Pappas said. “For four years, they have cost the county a fortune.”

But Kaegi and Resnick lauded the assessor’s office’s transition to Tyler’s iasWorld system, saying the new system will make the office more transparent and efficient.

“We have to stay the course,” Resnick said. “It has been a lot of hard work, but it is working — and we desperately need this.”



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