Cook County Board spending way more on staffs than collar county boards
Taxpayers spent $7.6 million last year to cover the costs of separate office staffs for each of the 17 Cook County commissioners and President Toni Preckwinkle.
Each Cook County commissioner employs four or five aides, something not afforded to county board members in the five collar counties. Preckwinkle's office has another 18 staffers, according to county financial records.
"I would rather have my people working with me than have a pool of employees," said Tim Schneider, a Republican commissioner from Bartlett. "But that said, I do think there's always room for consolidation."
Each of the 95.5 full-time-equivalent employees -- which includes the 17 commissioners, Preckwinkle and their combined staffs -- cost an average of $79,665 last year. That's the highest rate among county boards in the region, according to a Daily Herald analysis of board costs in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
"Having that many devoted to 17 commissioners lends itself to further examination," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government finance research group in Chicago. "They just passed a large sales tax increase and despite that are looking at another difficult year financially."
The county increased its share of sales taxes by a penny on a dollar Jan. 1, raising it to 1.75 percent.
Costs to operate the county board in the collar counties ranged from a high of nearly $2.5 million in Will County to a little more than $700,000 in McHenry County last year. All five collar counties combined spent just $500,000 more than Cook County's tab.
Cook County commissioners argue the size of their constituency and geography of their districts require they have individual staffs. But while they've been urging cost-cutting in other departments, commissioners haven't been practicing what they preach.
Only five commissioners reduced their offices' operating costs last year. Combined, the costs to operate the offices for the board and president rose by 4.8 percent, according to the county's audit.
Msall doesn't buy the size argument. He noted that Los Angeles County, similar in geographical size and population to Cook County, has only five elected commissioners.
Elmwood Park Republican Commissioner Peter Silvestri's office operations cost the most among commissioners at $391,902. Silvestri said a policy change that requires paying accrued sick time and unused vacation to retiring staffers out of the commissioner's office budget contributed to his costs.
He complained he wasn't informed of the policy change and it affected his ability to staff the office properly after making payments to a longtime employee who retired last year. He said the new budget notes the policy change so that other commissioners know about it and it explains why his office expenses were so high in 2015.
"It would have been advantageous for us to know they were doing that so we could properly plan our budget," Silvestri said. "I don't think it was intentional, just an example of the left hand thinking they didn't have to talk to the right hand."
Schneider cut his office's expenses by 14.5 percent last year, a savings of $48,315. His office's operational costs were $285,984, according to county financial records.
Only Commissioner John Daley spent less last year. Daley, who heads the influential finance committee and is given a larger budget, spent $262,892 to run his office. That's about half what he was authorized to spend.
"We are all given a ceiling, but you don't have to hit that ceiling," Schneider said. "I've chosen every year to rein things in and return money back to the county."
On average, taxpayers spent $343,625 for each commissioner to operate each office. The majority of costs were tied up in salaries and benefits for themselves and staff members. Additional costs included office supplies, contractual services, rent, leases, and operation and maintenance of district office space. Commissioners said they have to follow county procurement and ethics guidelines when hiring, contracting, buying or leasing.
Preckwinkle's office alone spent nearly $1.8 million last year. That's more than the entire operational costs of each of the county boards in Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.
That's also up more than $200,000 from last year.
Officials in Preckwinkle's office said the increase might be related to new initiatives that are covered by grants.
Msall said Preckwinkle's role as board leader and top county executive is rare and an example of cost-cutting through consolidation of positions.
Most counties have nonelected executives running the day-to-day operations of the county as well as a county board chairman, he said.
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