CHICAGO — The recession and Cook County budget crisis haven’t stopped some county government officials from submitting a lavish ‘wish list’ to pay for redecorating, new computers and other office equipment.
The county wish list – part of Todd Stroger’s budget proposal – is 213 pages long, small print on both sides and chock full of the necessities of running county government, such as coffee tables, granite counter tops and high back leather chairs, even a new jogging track for jail inmates.
One hundred and fifty two million dollars was requested for new equipment this year in a county that has a huge budget deficit, the highest sales tax in the nation and looming public service cuts.
The I-Team starts in one of Cook County’s smallest departments called the Board of Review. That’s where taxpayers come to contest their property assessments.
Twenty one year commissioner Joe Berrios and second term commissioner Larry Rogers say the board of review could better serve taxpayers with some new office furnishings.
“We are busting at the seems so we do owe it to the public to have appropriate facilities to work in,” said Commissioner Larry Rogers, Cook County Board of Review.
According to the wish list: more than $344,000 for furnishings including replacing wooden chairs where taxpayers wait and leather chairs where staff members sit with some that are more comfortable.
Chuck: You couldn’t make do in times like this with the chairs you have for a while?
Berrios: What do you mean make do?
Chuck: You couldn’t make do with those chairs in these financial times?
Berrios: We don’t need those chairs, we need to get smaller chairs and I don’t mean leather chairs.
Chuck: But the request says leather chairs.
Berrios: I know what the request says and the request is wrong.
Chuck: So you are not going to use leather chairs?
Berrios and Rogers aren’t the only civil servants who think they need to refurnish.
According to records obtained by Chicago’s Better Government Association for the I-Team, county department heads want $7.6. million to furnish their offices and $79 million dollars for new computer equipment.
“Peoples’ tax bills are just coming in. The sales tax is still fresh in peoples’ minds. The label and stereotype is excessiveness and waste and this fits that mold,” said Patrick Rehkamp, Better Government Association.
Among the Board of Review’s requests are new carpeting and granite countertops.
“There will be no granite counter tops; that’s absolutely not the case, you see what we have here we are looking to create what we have now,” said Commissioner Joseph Berrios, Cook County Board of Review.
Chuck: “But granite counter tops were requested
Berrios: That was not requested by us, that was put in incorrectly.
Chuck: It says granite counter tops.
Berrios: That’s a mistake.
Chuck: Who put that in?
Berrios: One of the clerks who typed it in.”
The records reveal that Cook County’s Provident Hospital asked for a quarter million dollars for new carpeting.
Public defender Edwin Burnette: $307,000 for new desks and file cabinets.
Court Clerk Dorothy Brown: $50,000 to replace furniture that she claims may cause injury.
Chief Judge Tim Evans would like $250,000 in new office chairs, coffee tables and orthopedic seating for judges with medical problems.
Sheriff Tom Dart wants $127,000 to replace a jogging track for prisoners, that is only 12 years old and “fallen into disrepair”.
“Every estimate is that unemployment could reach 12 to 14 percent. We are going to have to make very tough decisions about which services we provide. The audacity of some to say in the midst of all that, I want new furniture and sparkling new granite counter tops is really insulting,” said Mike Quigley, Cook County Commissioner.
There is a request for $45,000 for Mr. Berrios and two assistants to get new desks in their offices.
Chuck: “New desks, chairs, countertops-how do things like that impact being able to do your job and help the public?
Berrios: We need to expedite the process. You’ve looked at the furniture in this room and in some the offices. They are not conducive to speeding up the process.”
“I would suggest to all the separately elected officials in Cook County you can get by with the furniture you have for a while longer. It doesn’t have to look all that spiffy to get the job done,” said Quigley.
Commissioner Quigley has already helped to slash $58,000 from the Stroger budget, including two thirds of the decorating money Berrios and Rogers want.
But the budget hearings aren’t over and it’s unclear how they’ll pay for any of it.
There is a county warehouse full of gently used furniture that department heads could receive for free if they would only ask.