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Furlough debate threatens to stymie budget negotiations for Cook County board

Debate over furlough days threatens to stymie the upcoming budget negotiations for the Cook County Board. Between July 27 and September 7 of this year, five of the 17 Cook County Board commissioners - Earlean Collins, Robert Steele, William Beavers, Deborah Sims, and Joan Murphy - wrote letters to the Cook County comptroller, requesting to be reimbursed for the unpaid days off.

In his letter, Commissioner Beavers wrote, "As an elected official I am not required to take furlough days therefore I am requesting that the money deducted thus far be returned to me to correct this error." His colleague, Commissioner Murphy wrote, "I have been informed by the office of the State's Attorney that a commissioner's salary cannot be increased or decreased during a term in office."

On Wednesday, Commissioner Beavers said he was using his furlough days to protest President Toni Preckwinkle's lack of financial support for southern Cook County hospitals, a sentiment his colleague Earlean Collins echoed. 

But on Thursday, Larry Suffredin called out Beavers, saying his claim about the hospitals is a "total falsehood," and that any reference to a constitutional right on behalf of commissioners to keep their salary steady was inaccurate.

"When we voted for this budget, the hospital was in there, and it was the closure of the hospital that was part of their budget, and he knew that," Suffredin said. "He makes things up, as he does all the time. This man you cannot believe on any matter."

Suffredin called the five commissioners acting against the furloughs an "organized Stroger team making one last stand, led by Commissioner Beavers," a reference to former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who lost a re-election bid in 2010.

"(Beavers) hasn't been able to lead anybody to victory in years," added Suffredin. "This is the Stroger people versus those who want to reform county government....These are the same five that are opposed to anything good we've tried to do for years."

Some of Suffredin's colleagues who have agreed to take the furlough days say they doubt the five protesting commissioners are part of an organized effort. Many do agree, however, on cutting the budgets of the commissioners who are asking for reimbursements. 

"They'll get that much less than everyone else gets," said Comissioner Gregg Goslin.

"My intention is to cut these five commissioners' budget by the amount they didn't save in this year's," Suffredin added, explaining that in the budget for 2011, all commissioners received equal budgets, a change from previous years. "We also passed a resolution that said that if you did not meet the revenue projections required for your office, we would take that out of your next budget. So whatever they don't take in pay cuts this year, I intend to fight to cut their budgets for next year."

Many commissioners remain optimistic about the budget negotiations, during which the board will grapple with a anticipated shortfall of $315 million. According to the President's office, a commissioner's salary is $85,000 a year, and the ten total furlough and shutdown days cuts 4.8 percent of their budget.

The commissioners expect to receive Preckwinkle's proposed budget by mid-October.

Earlier this week, Preckwinkle suggested that she might call for the entire Cook County government to shutdown for ten days next fiscal year, instead of doing five furlough and five shutdown. The president called it a matter of greater equity.

But Commissioner Timothy Schneider argued that the name doesn't make a difference, while his colleague Daley pointed out that shutdown days are easier to handle because "It's very clear no one's here."

"My concern is, if they're saying no to these, to five furlough days, are they going to say no to (shutdown days)?" added Daley.

As for this debate slowing down budget negotiations, Suffredin said he wasn't worried about it working out.

"It's probably good to get it out of the way now before we get into the budget process," said Suffredin.

But Goslin said, "I'm sure there will be a lot more furlough days next year."

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