It was in the eleventh hour of last week's special Cook County Board meeting, called to pass a $2.9 billion budget that's months overdue, that a few board members began singing "Kumbaya."
Commissioner Mike Quigley was trying to pass an amendment to move marriage court from the basement of the County Building to somewhere in the Daley Center. The court's presence means the county has to use Sheriff Michael Sheahan's security and janitorial staffs, and Quigley, a longtime Sheahan foe, wanted the option of hiring cheaper workers. County Board president John Stroger was against the move.
"I want to give you this power, Mr. President," said Quigley, grinning. He's a Stroger opponent too.
"No, I don't need any more power," said Stroger. "I just need more peace and decorum from some of the commissioners!"
"I don't put all these amendments in here to cause fights," Quigley said. "I mean, if all you wanna do with these things is to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya,' I mean, we're wasting a lot of folks' time here."
A thin chorus of the song broke out. "We need a campfire!" called Commissioner Peter Silvestri.
Stroger had used a time-honored strategy to finally pass his fiscal 2004 budget and defeat nearly all the budget-reform amendments opposition commissioners were backing: put it off until the last minute, then wear 'em down. The county's fiscal year technically began last December 1, and state law requires the budget to be passed by February 29. Stroger had waited until last week's meeting, on February 23, to begin considering over 90 budget amendments and officially close a $57 million budget deficit. The marathon began at ten that Monday and finished a little before 1 AM Tuesday. This is what it's like to be Jack Bauer on 24, it hit me at one point.
The following events occur in real time.
PREVIOUSLY AT THE COOK COUNTY BOARD
The board last dealt with the county budget at a February 3 meeting of its finance committee--which is simply the board calling itself the finance committee and being chaired by Commissioner John Daley. Stroger's original budget back in October called for a .25 percent county sales tax increase and a new 4 percent lease tax on nearly anything you might rent besides housing. That way he could make 2004 the fifth year in a row without a property tax hike.
But Stroger didn't have the votes. The 2002 election brought five new commissioners to the 17-member board, four of whom campaigned as reformers. Now Stroger often butts up against an opposition bloc of five Republicans plus Democrats Quigley, Forrest Claypool, and Larry Suffredin. When Democrat Earlean Collins joins them as a swing vote, the opposition becomes a majority. And Collins was in the opposition camp on that round.
Collins did support another tax proposed by Commissioner Roberto Maldonado to partially cover the loss of Stroger's taxes--a cigarette tax hike from 18 cents to a buck a pack. Still, she was threatening to withhold her vote for the tax on a final roll call if her own budget amendments weren't considered.
Going into last week's meeting most of the opposition bloc commissioners backed two amendments: one holding the 2004 budget appropriations to 2003 levels and one slashing 2 percent across the board. Quigley speculated they could compromise on a 1 percent cut. "Can you find 1 percent of waste in any government?" he asked. "More like 3 or 4 percent, especially here, where [cutting has] never been done before."
9 AM TO 10 AM, FEBRUARY 23, 2004
Stroger's office distributes a letter from county comptroller John Chambers and chief financial officer Thomas Glaser detailing "revised estimates" of several county funds. The revisions include $20 million in brand-new money the commissioners hadn't even known existed--about $14 million from the Unknown Heirs Legal Settlement and $6 million from the Treasurer Indemnity Fund Escheatment. It's Stroger's end run around the opposition's proposals to slash the budget.
10 AM TO 11 AM
The county board meeting starts and immediately recesses to become a finance committee meeting. The budget amendments are supposed to be presented in order, but Stroger's amendment number 94 goes first--a $5.5 million package of cuts that would just barely cover the deficit when combined with the new $20 million and the cigarette tax. Many commissioners are relieved to support this plan, including opposition bloc Republican Carl Hansen. Others are not. "That's really not reducing the pencil fund! It's not even reducing erasers on top of pencils!" barks Republican Commissioner Anthony Peraica.
Collins gives her first signal that she may go along with Stroger at this meeting. "Let me also express my thanks and my gratitude to President Stroger and his staff," she enthuses. She's cheerful even when she notes that Stroger's serendipitous $20 million comes from what she and her former colleagues in the Illinois senate call "funny funds."
11 AM TO NOON
Claypool sarcastically calculates that $5.5 million in cuts amounts to "just point 000000001 percent"--meaning .001--of the $2.9 billion budget. "In light of $500 million in new taxes in the last decade alone, six major new taxes in 12 years, these cuts are not enough," he declares.
Suffredin points out that the new $20 million came "out of thin air....Funds that were not in our revenue books. Funds that somehow were not being accounted for....I want to commend Mr. Glaser and Mr. Chambers, because I have always found that people with facial hair have a better understanding of finances. Thank you." (Suffredin sports a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. Glaser has a big goatee, and Chambers is a large man with a shock of snow white hair and a matching beard.)
Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman proposes higher fees for 4 AM liquor licenses. Others suggest scrapping 4 AM licenses altogether. Quigley quotes an old precinct captain he once knew: "If you can't get drunk by 2 AM, you don't know what you're doing."
Stroger's budget cuts pass, 16-1, Peraica the only dissenting vote.
NOON TO 1:15 PM
Collins's proposals begin getting called, most dealing with reforms to give the board more power versus its president. One by one Stroger and others complain and find problems. Her amendment number 20 sounds sensible enough: "Only issues related to revenue, finance, and appropriations will be referred to the Finance Committee."
"Commissioner, did we talk about this more than one time?" Stroger asks her. "I said that most of the things that come in government do have some financial impact....Didn't I have this discussion with you?"
Collins ends up withdrawing nearly everything. She can't even pass a proposal requiring the board's president to follow a specific schedule for the budget process and present it by the first week of October.
1:15 PM TO 4 PM
The meeting breaks for those who want to attend a memorial service for Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal. Over a sandwich at her office desk, Collins explains her thinking on the finance committee's predominance over other committees: "That's how they [Stroger and Daley] control everything assigned to the committees....
It's an issue of control, and it's an issue of just, [they] don't wanna change."
4 PM TO 5 PM
The meeting resumes. Collins pushes her amendment number 33, which requires the county to hire qualified new employees only from districts where there aren't "a disproportionate number of county employees" already. The point is to hire people from areas other than Stroger's Eighth Ward and Daley's Eleventh Ward (where they're Democratic committeemen), unless an applicant is from a "protective class under state, federal, and local affirmative action and other civil rights laws."
"I talk with people in my district, and to be honest with you I don't know of a person in my district who are employed [by the county]," says Collins.
Commissioner Joan Murphy says she doesn't understand what a protected class is. "The Eighth Ward!" someone calls out.
Collins finally gets an amendment through--number 35 requires the county's director of human resources to send the board a report detailing unfilled budgeted positions in every department. Stroger says he'll veto it.
"I vote no, and we will continue to be the president," he says when he sees he'll lose the vote. "Uh, when is this term over? When this term's over, you guys, some of you run, and you may defeat somebody. You may defeat me, but right now, no."
5 PM TO 6 PM
Quigley gets through an amendment that would restrict executive employees earning $65,000 or more to either a step salary increase or a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in one year, but not both. In an average year, with step salary increases and a 3 percent COLA, Quigley says, the county spends an extra $65 million on wage increases alone. Stroger says he favors eliminating step increases--just not now. He wants to wait for union contracts to be renegotiated.
"These are folks making a fair buck, and we're not laying them off, we're not cutting their pay," Quigley protests. "There's a world out there that would cherish that!"
His amendment wins by two votes. Stroger says he'll veto this one too.
"Mr. Chairman," Quigley says to Daley, "is it your understanding that the president used his veto in the last five years, or since you've been here?"
"Nnnnno," Daley answers.
"I guess I feel honored," says Quigley.
8 PM TO 10 PM
The commissioners break briefly for a fried chicken dinner. When they resume, Republican Commissioner Gregg Goslin promotes the amendment to hold spending at 2003 budget levels. "Brother Goslin, you wanna close government up, huh?" Stroger says, laughing. It doesn't pass.
10 PM TO 11 PM
Peraica, Claypool, Suffredin, and Quigley push their amendment to cut 2 percent across the board from 2003 spending levels. "It comes down to what you believe," booms Claypool. "That Cook County government is a lean operation? Or, as the Chicago Tribune said, a fat, featherbedded one?...Are we happy with a meager $5 million in cuts in a $3 billion budget--one-tenth of 1 percent? Or will this board support fundamental change?"
"Were you reading that from the Tribune?" says Stroger. It doesn't pass.
11 PM TO 12:30 AM
Collins tries a last couple of amendments, such as one requiring county departments to submit quarterly spending plans and provide "methods for evaluating outcomes."
"There are some people who think this is an invasion of my authority. What do you think?" asks a smiling Stroger.
"Oh, I think it would be great for you, Mr. President!" says Collins. She withdraws it.
The County Board passes the cigarette tax with Collins's vote, then adopts the budget. The opposition members have derailed Stroger's sales tax increase and his new lease tax, though some are unhappy with the cigarette tax. They didn't stop employees from getting both raises and cost-of-living adjustments, but a Stroger-sponsored amendment did pass requiring execs earning over $65,000 to make monthly contributions to their health insurance.
The County Building quickly empties. Commissioners, staff, and audience grab coats and make for the elevators. They push in groups through the revolving doors and fan out into the dark deserted Loop.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.