An unusually eventful day at the Cook County Board brought vehement and vocal support of Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, approval for refinancing of roughly $330 million in county bonds, and deferral of a gas tax intended to go toward a youth jobs program.
The day’s biggest drama was over a resolution Comm. Peter Silvestri (R-9) planned to introduce asking leaders in Springfield to change the position of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk–currently held by Dorothy Brown–from an elected one to an appointed one, starting in 2020. The change had the support of Comm. Sean Morrison (R-17) and Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13).
“I am very concerned about the divisive nature of this resolution, especially taken out of context, as it has in so many different ways in the last couple days,” Silvestri said at the beginning of the Board meeting. The proposal came not long after Brown wrote to the Board requesting a raise, and after one of her staffers pled guilty in a pay to play investigation into Brown’s office. Silvestri said the resolution had been in the works for a while, and he waited to introduce it until after the primary election. Brown, despite a federal investigation into her office and a pulled endorsement from Cook County Democrats, won her party’s nomination handily.
“This had nothing ever to do with the current Circuit Court Clerk,” Silvestri continued. “I consider her a friend.” President Preckwinkle asked for quiet as some booed. After a short statement, he announced he’d withdraw the resolution. It drew cheers from the crowd that packed the board room.
President Preckwinkle again asked the audience multiple times to return to their seats and be quiet.
“But you didn’t respect Laquan McDonald,” a man wearing a Black Lives Matter tee shirt said. Scattered chants of “16 shots and a cover up,” began.
Silvestri and his co-sponsors said the move wasn’t aimed at Brown, but at streamlining court operations. “We run the largest court system in the country, and possibly in the world,” Suffredin said. Creating efficiency and “the quality of justice” within the department was an important concern.
“This was personal!” someone in the crowd yelled.
“Efficiency doesn’t always cause justice,” Commissioner Robert Steele (D-2) told Silvestri, thanking him for withdrawing the resolution.
Comm. Richard Boykin (D-1) accused Silvestri of “putting politics ahead of the people when we have the most pressing gun violence of our lifetime… yet we want to get waylaid and sidetracked by these kinds of resolutions that seek to undermine the people’s will.”
Silvestri could be seen mouthing “Really?” to Comm. John Daley (D-11).
Others who planned to protest the resolution, a group that included activists like Jedidiah Brown, Ja’Mal Green, and Zerlina Smith, filed out of the board room and joined Clerk Brown in the lobby for a press appearance, where Brown defended her elected position, then left the building. All while some chanted, “Dump the machine!”
Despite some disagreement, commissioners also voted to authorize the refinancing of roughly $330 million in Series 2006 bonds. County CFO Ivan Samstein said it was “just a re-issue” to take advantage of lower interest rates and save the county $27 million over the next decade. According to a briefing document from Samstein to Finance Chair John Daley, the county does not plan to restructure any debt, a practice used at the county, city, and CPS.
“Our intended long term target for debt service is to moderate the growth rate of debt service, including all anticipated new money needs in the 2016 Capital Budget as approved by the Board of Commissioners.” Samstein said the administration might look to refinance the Series 2006B bonds in 2017.
The county has not issued any new debt since Preckwinkle took office in 2011, Samstein says. And it doesn’t plan to until September, when the administration expects to ask commissioners to authorize an issuance to pay for construction of a new Cook County Health and Hospitals System building in the Illinois Medical District. Samstein estimates legal and underwriting fees for this issuance will total around $2 million.
Administration officials will meet with the three credit agencies later this month to discuss the County’s position. Each has given the county’s general bond ratings a negative outlook, which “demonstrate a very real possibility of future downgrades to the County Bond rating over the next 24 months,” the briefing doc from Samstein says. But he notes both Fitch and Moody’s have said the county’s adoption of a sales tax and extra contributions to worker pensions should result in positive credit implications.
Comm. Larry Suffredin reminded commissioners yesterday’s vote was not to borrow more money. “This is refinancing the existing debt. This is a prudent thing to do to save us money over a period of time.”
Comm. Richard Boykin was not persuaded. He voted no, citing senior lender Barclays being named in a predatory lending suit. Commissioners Bridget Gainer(D-10), Stanley Moore (D-4), and John Daley voted present.
Bid Incentives Adopted, Gas Tax Dropped
Dueling youth jobs pitches from Comm. Bridget Gainer and Comm. Richard Boykin faced their fate today as well. Boykin deferred his ambitious but ill-fated plan to tack an additional $0.04 tax on gasoline prices. Revenues would go toward a legislative package including $45 million for youth jobs, new parenting against violence initiatives, and a county disability office.
He announced his Community Violence and Stabilization Act shortly after commissioners held a hearing on dire unemployment numbers for youth of color. Comm. Gainer, who called for the unemployment hearing, introduced her own multi-pronged approach, which included bid incentives for county employers who hire teens.
Under Gainer’s plan, which received unanimous approval, qualified Cook County bidders can earn an incentive of up to one-half percent on county funded projects, if they hire teenagers between 16 and 19. “This is not an unfunded mandate, but infrastructure that allows those that want to employ young people the ability to do so,” Gainer said in a statement sent after the vote. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Other Items Of Note
Commissioners approved the interim appointment of a new County Medical Examiner, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar. She is the current Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, and will take over for Dr. Stephen Cina, who is leaving the position after achieving National Association of Medical Examiners accreditation earlier this year. When Cina was first appointed, the ME’s office was plagued by scandal, including coolers overcrowded with dead bodies.
A resolution petitioning Springfield to “institute statewide licensing and regulation of gun dealers and ranges” was introduced by Comm. Larry Suffredin. The resolution cites the high price of one gun homicide “an average of $441,000 in direct costs (including law enforcement, medical expenses, court costs, and prison), of which 87% is paid by taxpayers.”
Comm. Bridget Gainer, chair of the Pension Committee, called for a hearing to talk about the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions on pension reform, an update on actuarial valuations from last fiscal year, and information on payment of the sales tax into the county pension fund. The first sales tax payment–which goes above and beyond the statutorily required amount in state statute–was scheduled to be deposited at the end of April.