Peter N. Silvestri Candidate Profile:
Name: Peter N. Silvestri
City: Elmwood Park
Facebook: Peter Silvestri
Office sought: Cook County Commissioner, 9th District
Occupation: Cook County Commissioner, Attorney
Education: B.A., DePaul University, J.D., DePaul University
Civic involvement: Former member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), former Elmwood Park Village President and trustee, member and president of the Elmwood Park Board of Education, Elmwood Park Zoning Board, Elmwood Park Civic Foundation, Norwood Park Senior Home Board of Directors, past chairman of the St. Vincent Ferrer Religious Education Advisory Board, and past president of the West Central Municipal Conference and Leyden Norwood Park Municipal League
Elected offices held: Cook County Commissioner, former Elmwood Park Village President and trustee, member and president of the Elmwood Park Board of Education
Questions & Answers
Question 1: After the repeal of the sweetened beverage tax last year, the county made extensive cuts to bring expenditures more in line with revenues. Does more need to be done to either trim costs or grow revenues? If so, please give specific examples.
ANSWER: Each year, the county faces new issues, and each budget cycle produces its own set of challenges. So yes, more needs to be done to both trim costs and grow revenues. Once-reliable sources of income, such as the cigarette tax, cannot be depended on going forward as people purchase cigarettes outside the county, and fewer people smoke (fortunately). Sources of revenue from the area of transportation are changing and will continue to change as more people, particularly in the city, depend less on cars and taxis and more on public transportation, bikes, and ride sharing. Even the way we watch TV has changed drastically. So an overall strategy for revenue would be to increase cracking down on tax scofflaws while having a forward-looking, technology-aware, creative approach to finding new sources of revenue. We learned from the sugar tax, which I opposed from the start, that new taxes are not the solution. We need to have a forward-looking, technology-aware, creative approach to finding new sources of revenue.
I have asked our Revenue Department to explore sponsorships as long as they are mutually beneficial and can be done tastefully, which is underway at the forest preserve district. The assessor has allowed very limited advertising, which generates $800K per year. Other elected officials could do the same, and some agencies, such as the hospital, could benefit from, say, the sponsorship of a waiting room.
The public health system represents 40% of the budget and must be analyzed to determine ways to cut costs without negatively affecting the delivery of necessary health programs and services. Savings may be achieved with sharing of services with Rush and University of Illinois medical centers. Closing Oak Forest would save money, especially in light of its reduced mission. Sale of extensive property holdings there will also benefit the revenue stream, although it will be a one-time benefit.
Reducing our footprint in other areas, such as the additional closing of the underutilized area courtrooms in the City of Chicago (similar to the closing of courtrooms at the Belmont/Western police station), and the facilities the Sheriff's Office are closing will reduce yearly costs.
The county needs to continue to employ headcount reduction that does not reduce our mission. While we have made great strides in significantly reducing the number of employees, more than 83% of our expenses go to personnel and related costs. I am not, however, in favor of blanket, across-the-board cuts, which tend to disproportionately impact the smaller, more efficient, and sometimes revenue-generating departments at the expense of the larger ones.
I would choose common-sense measures of cutting the county's payroll. In addition to those mentioned above, we still have opportunities to merge departments that are now handled by the other elected officials (inspector generals, HR, procurement, to name a few) into one streamlined office for those functions.
The county needs to pursue ways to cut payroll costs in addition to cutting payroll. Some of those costs include eliminating, for example: one paid holiday, which is estimated to save $6.3 million; better scrutinizing the usage of overtime and FMLA; and reducing travel expenses. The county needs the cooperation of the unions for some changes, and for others, such as pension reform, it needs the cooperation of the state. I am committed to working with both.
I do not take the elimination of jobs lightly. I picture an individual with a family, not a generic position, when making such decisions. But it is painfully clear that we are hemorrhaging population in the county because people are fed up with the current tax situation, and relying on continually increasing taxes as a solution will only drive more people out and harm the business environment that we would instead would like to nurture.
I would support fees where reasonable and necessary. For example, we recently needed to increase some fees related to building and zoning in unincorporated areas to keep them on par with what those fees are elsewhere and to help cover the costs of our Building and Zoning Department duties there.
There are ways the county and city can consolidate to save money and improve efficiencies. For example, there is overlap in what the Chicago Board of Elections does and the Cook County Clerk does regarding elections. Certain areas of public health that duplicated and could be consolidated, such as STD and HIV/AIDS services, immunizations, and services for women and children. Collaboration on infrastructure and capital construction projects could achieve economies of scale. We would contract separately but collaborate on the administrative work. Increased joint purchasing, MBE/WBE certification, revenue collection and enforcement, combining 311 and the county's information, workforce development--these are just a few of the ideas that should be pursued, and some of the projected savings have already been identified by professionals, such as Accenture.
Question 2: The county has at times encouraged suburban communities to annex unincorporated areas, lessening the need for services in often small and remote areas of the county. Should the county continue this policy? Should it incentivize municipalities to annex?
ANSWER: Yes. As chairman of the Building and Zoning Committee I have worked with the Building and Zoning Department to help the unincorporated areas improve their building and zoning requirements so that they are following best practices. I sponsored resolutions updating the building code and requesting a report on economic development initiatives in unincorporated cook county, specifically related to suburban and unincorporated areas. The assumption is that the neighboring municipalities want the unincorporated areas; they generally do not. I support the voluntary merger of unincorporated areas into adjoining municipalities. The effective use of incentives to make such mergers attractive to the residents of both communities would accomplish this goal. I have always encouraged such mergers through the use of funds necessary to upgrade unincorporated area infrastructure and economic development. Zoning and development relief consistent with local municipal goals are part of these incentives.
Question 3: As commissioner on a board dominated by representatives of Chicago, how will you work (or if an incumbent, how have you worked) to ensure your suburban constituents' interests get fairly represented?
ANSWER: My district includes city and suburbs so I have always had to ensure fair representation of both. Community involvement is essential to me performing my job well. To that end, I will meet with any constituent about any matter. I participate in or host shredding events, community fairs, tax appeal seminars, senior citizen events, and a number of other activities--both city and suburban. I attend meetings of local community groups and communicate with them when there are issues of special interest seeking their input. I promote communication and involvement through my website, Facebook, and email. I send out a newsletter every other month to reach a large number of constituents on a regular basis. When there are issues specific to suburban areas, I partner with my suburban commissioners and communicate with the city commissioners to explain why their support is significant even though at first glance it might seem unrelated to their geographic area.
Question 4: Do you support the Cook County minimum wage and sick leave ordinances that took effect last year?
ANSWER: While I support the Cook County minimum wage and sick leave ordinances, I believe that these issues should be handled at the state level. The number of municipalities opting out of these ordinances backs this up.
Question 5: The Forest Preserve District made negative headlines in three instances recently, with a temporary employee being arrested in connection with a fatal crash, the deaths of three elk at Busse Woods, and an officer's inaction when a woman was harassed by another patron because of her Puerto Rico flag shirt. What do these incidents say about leadership in the district and what changes, if any, are needed?
ANSWER: The three incidents represent distinct problems; some are more easily corrected than others. The person responsible for the tragic fatal crash was a temporary employee who had completed driver training as part of his orientation. He was fired, indicted, and the Elk Grove police are leading the ongoing investigation. There are a number of active lawsuits related to this incident, and I am the chairman of the litigation subcommittee, so we have to be mindful of that. There will be a public hearing on the forest preserve alcohol and controlled substance policies, and the necessary changes will be made. Regarding the deaths of the elk, two employees were disciplined and the preserve superintendent changed the elk care policies. While the necropsies were inconclusive, dehydration may have been the cause, and the USDA has approved the policy changes the administration has made to improve our procedures. Employees and supervisors have also received additional training. Regarding the appalling harassment incident, the forest preserve police officer resigned, and the perpetrator has been charged with a felony hate crime. Forest preserve district leadership is overhauling its diversity training and all aspects of its training. It is also working with the community to develop relationships and programs to ensure that it won't happen again and that all people feel welcome in every preserve. From my observation, the forest preserve leadership is devastated and outraged by these incidents and is addressing the issues head-on. As more is known after further investigation of all of these recent issues, additional disciplinary actions, including firings, may be needed.
Question 6: Do you support the Forest Preserve District's Next Century Plan and, if so, how does the county find the funding for it? If not, what measures can be taken to improve the conditions of forest preserve facilities within the county's means?
ANSWER: I support the Forest Preserve District's Next Century Plan. The plan is an ambitious one, but the FPD is in the midst of a number of initiatives intended to raise the required funds. One of the main ways is to maximize public/private partnerships. In addition, the FPD has invested in an extensive marketing campaign to raise awareness and increase activity throughout the preserves. Revenue from new license agreements continues to grow, and the district expects growing revenue from permits, campgrounds, aquatic centers, and the improved collection of fines. The district will continue to work with the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo to leverage resources and embrace new audiences. The district is also working to establish nature-compatible businesses adjacent to the preserves--and in some cases within the preserves, such as with bike rentals. The district continues to expand its partnerships with other nonprofits, which have proven effective sources for both in-kind and financial assistance. Some of these include Openlands, Chicago Wilderness, and the Friends of the Chicago River. Grants from the Forest Preserve Foundation, too, have been increasing exponentially over the years. The 2018 budget includes a restructuring of permits, rentals, and the concessions department as well as a concessions masterplan to take advantage of the many new opportunities for revenues in this area thanks to the new and restored campgrounds and other building projects. Finally, we could put it before the voters in a referendum to see if they were in favor of a slight tax increase to fund the plan.
Question 7: What other issues, if any, are important to you as a candidate for this office?
ANSWER: I look forward to working with the new assessor's office to restore confidence in the tax assessment system. I'm advocating for changes both to the way properties are assessed and the way appeals are carried out. The assessment system has been proven to be unfair and particularly harmful to low-income communities. The county commissioned a study and has a blueprint of how to assess more fairly, it just wasn't implemented. There are better models we can draw from in implementing a new assessment system. The keys are that it be fair and transparent.
I have also been working to correct the ways the "Mom and Pop" tax classification was being manipulated. That ordinance was put in place to protect Mom and Pop businesses, which were being assessed the same as large commercial properties. My resolution would protect Mom and Pop businesses while eliminating all loopholes.
I also sponsored a resolution creating an office of tax administration to combine functions now performed by several offices. While the previous State's Attorney expressed concerns regarding the county's home rule authority to accomplish this, at the very least we could do it via referendum. We have combined a lot of the tax functions into one website, but the entire tax process is way more complicated than it needs to be and is begging for further streamlining. The timing is good, too, as the Clerk's Office will soon be reinvented as it absorbs the Recorder of Deeds Office. The Clerk's tax functions could then move to the administrator. That would just be the first step.
I also would like to focus on making improvements to our pension system. Pension reform is absolutely necessary, and we have to unfortunately rely on the state for that. The failure of pension reform in Springfield is one of the main reasons the Cook County sales tax was raised in 2016. It is not fair to the taxpayers to pay yet again for the state's dysfunction. This year, the county board chose to make a supplemental pension payment of $353 million over and above our required contributions. While this is an admirable effort, it is not the long-term solution that real pension reform could be.
As a former member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), I have explored how other areas have accomplished consolidating overlapping and sometimes outdated taxing districts. Some states are providing grants and other incentives that proved effective in counties dissolving unnecessary services and consolidating others. Illinois, without providing funding, has made it legislatively possible for some counties to do the same, but Cook was excluded from the list. Cook County has four mosquito abatement districts, 21 TB/sanitary districts, and 33 fire protection districts. I'd like to work with Springfield to allow Cook to do what it is allowing DuPage, Lake, McHenry counties to do--and consolidate.
More about you
In addition, here a few questions meant to provide more personal insight into you as a person:
1. What's the hardest decision you ever had to make?
ANSWER: This was more a series of decisions, but it was how to care for my ill parents and how to manage their household and affairs as they grew older. They are both deceased now, but my mother had dementia for years, and my dad lived to be 94.
2. Who is your hero?
ANSWER: My parents are my heroes. My father left the family farm in Italy after World War II, attended trade school, and became a welder. My mom followed a similar path, leaving Italy and working as a seamstress here. Their love and hard work set a great example and gave me all that I could have hoped for.
3. Each amendment in the Bill of Rights is important, but which one of those 10 is most precious to you?
ANSWER: To me, the most precious amendment is the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to assemble peacefully. The First Amendment, I believe, is the core, though all are important and should be protected!
4. What lesson of youth has been most important to you as an adult?
ANSWER: The lesson of youth that has been most important to me is the importance of enjoying life to the fullest, while being responsible.
5. Think back to a time you failed at something. What did you learn from it?
ANSWER: What I learned is that trying and failing is better than not trying at all.