Category Archives: Cook County

A Step Toward Streamlining Government in Cook County

Cook County Townships, Illinois State Archives

Illinois just took one small step toward streamlining government sprawl.

Under the new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday, residents in individual townships in Cook County can now vote on whether to eliminate the office of highway commissioner – generally the township government post with the largest taxpayer-backed budgets.

Townships are a form of government that began in the 19th century, before population centers formed, and municipal and county lines were drawn.

As discussed on this blog before, townships can be necessary links between citizens and their government—particularly in rural areas where county and municipal governments cannot provide the community outreach needed to serve the needs of their citizens. But the role townships play in more urban areas—and whether that role is necessary—has been under attack and questioned by disgruntled taxpayers and growing number of lawmakers.

In townships, highway commissioners run the road district, and are responsible for caring for unincorporated roads not served by municipalities or counties.

However, townships with multiple municipalities located within its boundaries (with their own public works programs) have very little road to tend. Nonetheless, the costs of maintaining these roads can be very high.

For instance, the Northfield Township road district maintains only 19.8 miles of road but the road district is budgeted for $2.2 million in the 2011 to 2012 budget, with almost $1 million of that amount going toward worker salaries and benefits.

Under the new law, the board of trustees of a township in Cook County can submit a ballot measure giving voters the opportunity to eliminate the road district in that township. That ballot can appear in a general or consolidated election.

If a majority of voters say “yes”, the road district and the position of highway commissioner is eliminated as of the following January 1. The township board absorbs the duties of the highway commissioner, and can decide whether it wants to handle the duties of the highway commissioner itself, or if it should enter a contract with local municipalities and counties.

That means that if a township board decides to put the question on the ballot, taxpayers could be voting on the question as early as November 6, 2012.

With just over 1,400 townships in Illinois, beginning to streamline the townships of suburban Cook County is just a small step. But for Cook County residents who see their township road districts as inefficient and redundant government entities, this is a first step they will no doubt be eager to take.

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Filed under Cook County, Legislative Update, Streamlining Government, Townships

Treasurer Pappas’ Budget Woes Signal More Trouble Ahead for Cook County

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas argues that ongoing security threats to her and her office require she have a full-time security detail. Given that ensuring the safety of our elected officials is a cost taxpayers are willing to bear, that’s a need many may see as legitimate.

The problem is that, in this case, taxpayers don’t see the security costs at all, according to a Better Government Association/CBS 2 investigation that revealed problems with Pappas’ hiring and budgeting practices.

Nothing in the Cook County budget indicates that Treasurer Pappas has a security detail. The so-called security person listed on Treasurer Pappas’ budget is defined as a “Project Leader”, and his job description indicates he deals with the development and implementation of highly sophisticated computer software applications.

In reality, his actual duties consist of driving the Treasurer to yoga practice, picking up her dry-cleaning, and dropping her off at work—all at a rate of $94,078 per year courtesy of Cook County taxpayers.

More troubling, when asked what qualifies this worker as “security”, Pappas responds that he speaks to her in Greek when things look sketchy. While being bilingual is an admirable skill, it takes much more than that to be a trained bodyguard.

And what does Treasurer Pappas say to explain the discrepancy between her so-called security person’s job title and job duties? She argues job titles are improperly labeled across the Cook County personnel roles, implying that since everyone else is doing it, it must be OK for her to do it too.

The decision to engage government waste and mismanagement is indefensible, especially with faulty logic like that to back it up.

Undeterred, Pappas proves her point of widespread personnel record discrepancies by pointing to another position in her office—that of an administrative assistant charged with evaluating and analyzing operational systems—who is actually tasked with cleaning Pappas’ office for $54,000 a year. Pappas argues that she doesn’t trust the janitorial staff provided by the Cook County Sherriff’s office.

It may well be that the Treasurer needs a 24/7 security detail. And maybe she correctly determined she could not trust the janitors assigned to her. But it was also determined through the budgeting process that the county needed a project leader and an administrative assistant—that’s what the $94,078 Pappas’ driver makes and the $54,000 her cleaning lady brings home was budgeted for.

Upon learning of the BGA’s findings, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced that she will be taking steps to ensure county departments are accurately listing their employees and the corresponding job titles and duties.

Preckwinkle’s decision to audit county jobs to fix discrepancies between job titles and job duties is right on target. If a security detail is important enough to the Treasurer that she thinks taxpayers should fund it, it’s important enough for taxpayers to know about it. When money goes to pay someone hidden on the books, taxpayers are being lied to, and are getting cheated out of the services that money was supposed to pay for.

The Office of the Independent Inspector General (OIIG) may also have a role in ending this practice. The OIIG is charged with detecting, deterring and preventing misconduct in the operation of Cook County, and they have full use of numerous criminal and civil remedies at their disposal.

OIIG should launch investigations and bring those who have chosen to hide and misuse county money to justice. Hiding chauffeurs and cleaning ladies in the books seems to be a fairly clear-cut example of that.

Another concern being raised is whether Pappas’ security person and cleaning lady were hired legally.

The Shakman Decree requires that all non-exempt county workers be hired based on objective criteria. Those criteria should relate to the publicly posted job title, and should lead, after the interview process, to a list of ranked candidates.

These safeguards were put in place to ensure the county does not allow unlawful political considerations to influence the hiring process. But in this case, without a real job title or description, it’s hard to imagine a legitimate application or interview process occurred with either of the positions in question.

If this is a countywide practice, as Pappas indicated, the Shakman compliance officer and the Office of the Inspector General should follow Preckwinkle’s lead by investigating these cases.

Taxpayers have a right to know how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent.

So when it comes to the budget, what we see is what we should get.

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