Friday, September 23, 2011

The Fantastic(??!?) Five too good for cost-savings Cook County furloughs

From what I have heard and read, this seems to be an effort led by Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, with support from commissioners Earlean Collins, Joan Patricia Murphy, Deborah Sims and Robert Steele.

They are the five county commissioners (out of 17 total) who are pushing forward with an effort to be reimbursed money from their county salaries that was part of a plan to cut the county budget – but which they say is an illegal attempt to cut their pay.

COMMISSIONERS SENT LETTERS to the county demanding to be reimbursed for the 10 “furlough” days they were supposed to use to take time off. Since they officially weren’t working, they weren’t paid for those days.

This is a move being asked of every single person on the Cook County payroll. All the people who do the actual work in the assessor’s office or the recorder of deeds or in the other agencies are being asked to do the same thing.

Yet in letters sent this summer that came to a head when the county board met this week, these five commissioners contend that since they’re elected officials, this cost-cutting move cannot be done to them.

We’re hearing a lot of rhetoric about how it is “against the law” to cut an elected official’s salary during their current term. Which would imply they would accept the idea of a furlough if its implementation were postponed until county board members begin their new terms in 2015.

I MUST ADMIT that I don’t get what is going through the minds of these five county commissioners. This is a cut that everybody in the county, and even many people in city government, has been taking in recent years.

To suddenly come up with this objection now makes them look absurd.

Besides, it becomes quite apparent upon listening to the commissioners that I’m not sure they truly comprehend exactly what state law says on this subject.

What the law says is that an elected official’s salary cannot be changed during their current term. Whenever a government body approves pay raises for themselves, those pay hikes must be delayed so that they don’t take effect until a new term.

WHICH MEANS IF government officials want to approve pay raises for their future successors (or themselves if they manage to get re-elected), that is acceptable.

It is the law that is meant to prevent county board members from approving big fat raises for themselves up front, knowing there would be at least four years before the next election cycle.

The law itself makes sense. Officials know going into a political post what (if anything) it pays. If it is insufficient, then perhaps they should reconsider their desire to hold an elective government office.
But no matter how many times I hear Beavers say the words “pay cut” and “illegal” (as he did Wednesday night on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” program), I’m not sure how this current situation applies to the law that says a salary cannot be changed.

BECAUSE AS I see it (maybe Beavers and crew can convince a judge to see it differently if this ever winds up in court), the base salary being paid to these people – along with all the county employees who also are taking the furlough – remains the same.

The reason why a few of their paychecks were smaller is because they were asked to work fewer days. They’re being paid at the same rate, but for less work. Where’s the pay cut?

Now I realize that a county board member, in a sense, is on call at all times. If some business had come up on one of the days that they were officially “off-duty” and not being paid, they likely would have tended to it anyway.

But that, in a sense, is the drawback of doing a job that one enjoys (and I don’t doubt they enjoy carrying the title of “government official” with all its perks). If you don’t like it, go find one of the declining numbers of assembly line jobs – where management will likely laugh at you before firing you if you were to pull this kind of rhetoric on them.

I’M SURE SOME people are going to argue that less money in the check constitutes a pay cut, and that trying to view the issue any other way is wrong. Actually, trying to view the issue that way is simplistic – and misses the whole point.

That point being that the county government, along with city and state governments, businesses and just about everybody, are enduring tight economic conditions.

County government employees and officials are far from the only people who are enduring the possibility of working fewer hours in order to help their companies maintain the same number of jobs.

Considering that the county furlough amounts to less than one day per month, it is not the most intense pay loss one could suffer. I’m sure someone who got whacked from full-time to perhaps 30 hours per week feels the loss more intensely.

SO NO MATTER how much Beavers tried spinning the issue on Wednesday as one where he agreed to a furlough only as part of a since-ignored deal to keep Provident and Oak Forest hospitals open, it just doesn’t play.

I have no doubt that the public is going to see this issue as a matter of five government officials who are even more lacking in public perception of themselves than the typical politician.


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