Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle won unanimous approval this morning of a budget plan that includes a deal with unions to have thousands of county workers take 10 unpaid days off during the rest of the year.
It was one of Preckwinkle's first major successes as the new leader of county government. The overwhelming support for the $3.05 billion budget was due in part to the deal struck with unions, which lowered the number of expected layoff by 550, to about 750.
The 17-0 vote came at about 4:20 a.m. -- more than 19 hours after the meeting began with the surprise approval of a measure to repeal the rest of a controversial sales tax increase by the start of 2013.
Tired commissioners applauded in a solemn fashion after the final budget vote was taken. Just minutes earlier, slap-happy commissioners, county workers and union leaders were telling jokes and laughing as Commissioner Robert Steele streamed music from his iPad through the chamber's sound system.
The meeting lasted so long mostly because Preckwinkle and commissioners were meeting during frequent breaks with union leaders, most of whom agreed to deals that would require about 15,000 of the county's workers to take 10 unpaid days off a year.
Five of those would be unpaid days selected by the workers. The others would come on county "shutdown days," when county offices and most courtrooms would be closed. Workers at the jail, in the sheriff's police department, at county hospitals and at emergency and bond courts would still report to work.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees did not immediately agree to the 10 unpaid days, but it plans to make a decision by March 11, Preckwinkle said. If it were to accept, "it is possible that there will be fewer layoffs," she added.
The vote for repeal of the sales tax increase was 12-5, with the no votes coming from commissioners who represent areas where more county residents rely on the public health system subsidized by county taxpayers. Opponents said it could worsen the county's chronic money woes.
"I appreciate their concerns, but I don't share them," Preckwinkle said of the rollback opponents. "I think that we're going to be able to restructure county government and to make efficiencies and look at innovative ideas that will enable us to operate more effectively and at least cost.
"Over the long term I think that's what we have to do anyway, and I think this is an extra added incentive."
Preckwinkle had pledged during her campaign to roll back the remaining half of a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase championed by Todd Stroger, the unpopular incumbent president she beat in a primary last year.
The county's budget shortfall -- estimated by Preckwinkle at $487 million -- stems in part from last year's rollback of half the tax increase.
To close that gap, the county will rely on the layoffs, other spending cuts, department consolidation, long-term debt refinancing, short-term borrowing, collection of unpaid taxes, some fee increases and the tapping of surplus funds.
But Preckwinkle has acknowledged more fundamental change will be needed in the coming years, as the county rolls back the remainder of the sales tax increase. Each quarter-cent generated up to $100 million in revenue.
"We're going to try to change the way in which we buy goods and services," she said, adding that operations will be reorganized. "There are a number of things that are underway which we hope will involve significant changes in the way the county does business and savings to the county and taxpayers."
In her first 100 days, Preckwinkle has fired many of Stroger's top operatives, consolidated government operations and ordered a review of spending on construction projects and equipment purchases. She also made an ally of Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, D-Chicago, who made the rounds with her to push her budget plans.
Preckwinkle has twisted the arms of fellow Democratic countywide elected officials, including State's Atty. Anita Alvarez and Sheriff Tom Dart. That led to some heated moments when Dart and Alvarez resisted initial calls to cut their budgets by 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Dart sarcastically suggested he could run the jail, patrol unincorporated areas on his bicycle and guard courthouses all by himself, and Alvarez said the cuts would have a devastating effect on prosecuting criminals.
But, unlike Stroger, Preckwinkle negotiated deals in each case that involved the sheriff and prosecutor taking on extra duties previously handled by outside firms in exchange for lesser cuts. In the end, Alvarez agreed to lay off about 25 lawyers, instead of 58, and Dart agreed to up to 100 layoffs, less than first anticipated.
In the end, Preckwinkle got something Stroger never did: a unanimous vote for her spending plan.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun