January 10, 2012 09:57 AM
Some Commissioners Fall Short on Furloughs
According to a report obtained by the BGA and the Chicago News Cooperative, four of the 17 Cook County commissioners did not fully abide by the furlough plan put in place last year to save hundreds of jobs.
By Patrick Rehkamp/BGA and Adrienne Lu/CNC
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Four Cook County commissioners failed to take some or all of the required 10 days off without pay in the fiscal year that ended Nov. 30, 2011, according to a preliminary report by the county comptroller’s office.
All 17 Cook County Commissioners approved last year’s budget, which called for most of the county’s 23,700 employees to take five furlough days in addition to five county "shutdown" days in an effort to save an estimated 550 jobs. A spokeswoman for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the plan saved an estimated $23 million, $2.4 million less in savings than had been projected.
The furlough plan proved difficult to enforce. About 10,400 county employees were exempted, said the spokeswoman, Liane Jackson, in some cases because they were deemed essential. At one point, five commissioners – William Beavers, Earlean Collins, Deborah Sims, Robert Steele and Joan Murphy – had indicated they did not wish to participate.
Commissioners were able to opt out of the furlough plan, which called for them to take 10 unpaid days each, because the state constitution prohibits increasing or decreasing the salaries of sitting elected officials. The commissioners earn salaries of $85,000 a year and the unpaid days would have amounted to a pay cut of about 5 percent.
Sims, Steele and Murphy eventually participated in the furloughs. Beavers and Collins did not.
Commissioners John Fritchey and Jerry Butler each took only five of the required unpaid days, according to the report, which was obtained by the Chicago News Cooperative and the Better Government Association through public records requests.
Butler said in an interview that it was a mistake and that he plans to write a check for the days he owes.
"I guess if we owe them, I’ll pay it," he said. "They haven’t approached me directly but they talked to my chief of staff…It got a little screwed up but we’ll straighten it out."
Fritchey said his office had returned about $40,000 in unspent money to the county from his allocated budget. He showed a reporter a copy of a letter he said he had sent to the county comptroller’s office asking if he could skip the furlough days, since he would be returning to the county more than what his unused furlough days would have saved. He said he did not get a response from the comptroller’s office, so he assumed he was in compliance.
"I’m very mindful of making sure that I am on the same page as the president both in intention and in deed," Fritchey said. "The amount of money that I was able to return to the county clearly illustrates my commitment to our goal of saving money."
Beavers and Collins acknowledged they did not participate in the furlough plan.
Asked about his decision to forgo the furlough days, Beavers said: "Everybody knows my position. It hasn’t changed."
In addition to his commissioner’s salary, Beavers, a former alderman and Chicago police officer, earned a pension of roughly $88,000 from Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago from his time in the City Council and about $15,000 from the Chicago Police Pension Fund last year, according to pension fund records.
Collins confirmed that she had not taken any furlough hours. She said she spent money on the poor, and that more savings could have been found by cutting salaries in Preckwinkle’s office.
"I’m going to help the people," Collins said. "We buy coats and food for women who are getting out of prison with my money. I don’t have time to contribute to [the] county," Collins said. "I don’t apologize for not taking any furlough days and I’m not going to take any to please anybody."
Collins said Preckwinkle "should have cut the salaries of all those people she hired."
In addition to her county commissioner salary, Collins receives an annual pension payment of $82,956 from her days as a state senator, according to the General Assembly Retirement System of Illinois.
Jackson, Preckwinkle’s spokeswoman, said the president "is disappointed by the decision of commissioners and staff who chose not to participate in the process, particularly as the anticipated savings were factored into the passage of the [fiscal year] 2011 budget, but she commends those who voluntarily complied and helped save the county millions of dollars."
Jackson said county employees under the president’s jurisdiction who did not comply with the furloughs "will be subject to a disciplinary hearing and disciplined accordingly by their direct supervisor." She said disciplinary actions could range from verbal warnings to being required to take an unpaid day in 2012. She said Preckwinkle would encourage the heads of other offices to take similar disciplinary measures.
In large part because the furlough days proved so difficult to enforce, Preckwinkle changed tactics in the most recent round of budget negotiations and asked county employee unions to accept eight unpaid days off in the current fiscal year, including six county holidays. The unions refused and the county’s budget now calls for about 775 county employees to be laid off.
This investigation was written and reported by Patrick Rehkamp, a senior investigator with the BGA, and Adrienne Lu with the Chicago News Cooperative. Contact Patrick at email@example.com or (312) 386-9201.