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New Board President Calls Sheriffs' Payroll 'Bloated'

CHICAGO (STMW) -- New Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle criticized Sheriff Tom Dart today, suggesting his payroll is bloated and saying she will try to force him to cut his budget more than he contends would be responsible.

She wants him to spend $70 million less, but doesn't specify what he should cut. Dart has said he could cut only $43 million without hurting his ability to provide adequate police services, properly staff the jail and keep the courthouses safe.

Preckwinkle said she's willing to give him money by raising court-service fees and collecting a bigger cut from foreclosure sales fees. But she's also taking on a popular sheriff who's a powerful political force in his own right.

"The sheriff's view is that if I make him make cuts the sky is going to fall, and he's wrong," Preckwinkle told the Tribune editorial board, referring to Dart's sarcastic suggestion last week that he cut his entire budget and patrol the county on his bicycle.

"The cuts that we are going to propose are not to the jail staff, although he's clearly got issues there, and they're not to his policing function," she added. "What we're proposing is cuts in other places and that he manage his office more effectively, which I believe he can do."

Dart spokesman Steve Patterson said his boss has yet to see Preckwinkle's budget proposal and therefore couldn't comment on it.

Preckwinkle said that one in five of Dart's 6,800 employees is off work on any given day for personal medical reasons or to care for a family member under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. At the jail, it's one in four, she said.

While those employees are off, the county continues to pay their pension and health insurance costs, and more employees are needed on the payroll to ensure full staffing, Preckwinkle said. Too many sheriff's employees are on long- term disability or getting worker's compensation payments, she added.

Dart's spokesman said the sheriff already has worked for the past year or so to address the issue of family and medical leave.

"It's absolutely a problem," Patterson said, adding that Dart brought it to Preckwinkle's attention. "It's absolutely something we have been trying to fix."

He also said the risk management department in the board president's office oversees worker's compensation and long- term disability cases. He said Dart cut the number of sheriff's deputies not required under court order by 300 over five years and hasn't hired any new police.

As Preckwinkle spoke to the editorial board, Commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago, chairman of the board's Finance Committee, sat at her side. "The sheriff is going to have to explain, not only to the commissioners, but to the voters, why he cannot do this," Daley said, when asked if his colleagues would back Preckwinkle's plan to cut Dart's spending.

Four years ago, then-board President Todd Stroger in his first year in office also dueled with Dart over his budget. The reductions ended up being less severe than Stroger proposed once the board was through adjusting the plan.

Preckwinkle's $3.1 billion budget proposal, which she'll introduce Tuesday, would increase spending by about $35 million. County spending could have been higher due to rising worker salaries and debt payments. At the same time, the county will collect less money because it lowered the sales tax by a half-penny last year.

Elected in November, Preckwinkle proposes a combination of cuts and fee increases totaling 16 percent or more for most county offices, although the state's attorney and public defender would be hit with 10 percent reductions. The cuts alone would lower costs by more than $235 million.

In the offices under her control, which account for a relatively small portion of county spending, Preckwinkle would lay off 418 employees, a move she called "painful."

"Some of these people are clearly slackers and shirkers, but most of them are just ordinary people who go to work every day and try to do the best they can, and they are going to be out of a job," she said.

She also said she has taken a 10 percent pay cut, reducing her salary to $153,000, and she's consolidating some departments to reduce other costs.

Other proposals aimed at closing a budget hole pegged at $487 million include refinancing debt to save $90 million a year between now and 2013, taking out a short-term line of credit to help cover a recent $45 million court settlement, counting $23.7 million in special taxing district revenues freed up by the city and increasing by $21 million the expected revenues at the treasurer's office.

The debt refinancing would cost the county $60 million during a 25-year period.

© Sun-Times Media Wire Chicago Sun-Times 2011. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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