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Preckwinkle’s 1st 100 days: ‘I expected the job to be hard and it has been’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle reaches a milestone Wednesday, marking her first 100 days as chief executive of a $3.1 billion government that largely funds the jail and courts as well as a public health and hospital system.

In two recent wide-ranging conversation with the Sun-Times, the 63-year-old former Chicago alderman from Hyde Park, talked frankly about cleaning up some of the messes left by her predecessor Todd Stroger — whom she supported in his 2006 bid for board president but emerged as a chief critic when she decided to run against and win the seat last year.

Some of the mop-up she describes as short term: passing a budget that erased a half-billion budget deficit by the Feb. 28th deadline, all of it with the unanimous support of the 17 commissioners.

She also secured, this time with the backing of a majority of commissioners, the gradual repeal of what’s left of a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax that cost Stroger his job.

And she’s met with Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel to talk about the critical intersection of the Chicago Public School system’s miserable 54 percent graduation rate and how some of those left behind “feed the jail.”

The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:

Q: What is the biggest difference between running an aldermanic office with a budget of a few hundred thousand and serving as the chief executive of a $3.1 billion government?

A: It’s an odd chief executive position. You’re responsible for 100 percent of the budget but you’re only [overseeing directly] 8 percent of the budget. It’s a lot of begging, wheedling and cajoling and not so much directing people through things as a normal chief executive might. With 11 separately elected officials and an independent healthcare system it’s a quite odd executive arrangement.

Q: So the president’s job is more difficult?

A: I expected the job to be hard and it has been. The breadth of the constituency you serve is larger. But being alderman, if you’re serious about it, can be time-consuming, too.

Q: Who are your confidants, the people you go to as you’re trying to get your arms around county operations?

A. John [Daley, a Cook County commissioner and powerful head of the finance committee] has been really helpful since the primary in February [2010] and he’s surely been helpful in the budget process. The person who helped us tap in to the institutional memory is Mike Igoe. [Now in the private sector and a member of Preckwinkle’s transition team], he was board secretary when George Dunne was here. He was here when John Stroger was here.

Q:What kind of help?

A: He was one of the people who tried to help us scope out how big the deficit was. He gave us some hints where we had problems and — I should think of a way to say this another way — but basically what games had been played by our predecessor, the ways in which the financial situation in the county had been misrepresented.

Q: And what did you go away with after all of his insight?

A: Frankly we have some structural problems that we haven’t addressed for a very long time. The modest amount we pay for health care [employees pay 4 percent of their health-care costs], the generous pension benefits, the automatic step increases for longevity – these are things we’re going to have to take up with our workforce because over the long run we can’t afford the commitments that we’ve made.

Q: What do you see as your greatest accomplishment in this short period?

A: The budget.

Q: You came in to office with a vow of doing business differently, that the county would be leaner and meaner. But in reaching a balanced budget, most of the 23,000 county employees will be taking 10 unpaid days off this year. Isn’t that more Band-aid than an overhaul of government?

A. I don’t know, we’ve had furlough days and unpaid holidays for years in the city. Actually, unpaid and furlough days add up to 21 days in the city.

Q: Even if you try to cap spending at current limits, there will be the inevitable hikes in utility costs and cost-of-living raises built in to some positions. Where do you find the money?

A: It’s not so much revenue generation, it’s more effective use of the resource that we have and that’s what we’re looking for.

Q: And you’ve hammered out a deal with ComEd to cut energy costs in the county building?

A: We could find $850,000 in savings by more effective management of our energy usage.

Q: What about Commissioner John Fritchey’s proposal to put 400 information technology staff, spread across multiple county offices, under one roof? It could save millions, but it failed during budget sessions. Is there a second chance?

A: We’ve just begun our conversations with the separately elected officials, all of whom have their own information technology crews, and we’re trying to figure out how to get everybody to work together. That’s where we are.

Q: Some of the loudest cheers you’ve heard to date have been from shoppers and business owners after you cemented a deal with a majority of commissioners to rollback the remaining half-penny of the sales tax hike by 2013. Still, commissioners like Robert Steele balked, concerned that the loss of revenues will hurt the county’s primary functions: the jail and courts and the hospital system that serves the poor and uninsured. What do you say to that?

A: Commissioner Steele has to do what’s right, in his own judgement, but I don’t agree with him. My view is, first of all we made a promise we were going to do this — it was a campaign pledge. Secondly, if we don’t impose some discipline on the county now it just gets harder and harder going forward. We need to make our plans and figure out how we’re going to provide services in an environment in which resources are less. That’s just how it is.

Q: Any bills in Springfield the county is lobbying for or against?

A: Actually the most recent conversations I had with Derek Blaida, who is our Springfield [lobbyist], is around the Washington agenda. Needless to say, a federal government shutdown of any length of time is not good for local units of government. Our principal concerns are around how they’re going to make their billions of cuts. And we’re particularly concerned about keeping Medicaid payments and disproportionate share payments in the health-care system that for public hospitals like ours that serve such a large share of uninsured individuals — what is it? — 60 to 70 percent of our patients are uninsured.

Q. On the campaign trail you mentioned the 51 miles of unincorporated Cook County has become a financial drain and that you’d like to see local municipalities annex those. What’s happening?

A: For the first three months, we spent our time on the budget. Truth be told, these are things we’re just beginning to look at now. I think it’s a good idea to work with adjacent communities and municipalities to incorporate these unincorporated areas. That will be easier in some cases than others. I think our goal over the first term is to reduce the amount of unincorporated Cook County.

Q: What’s the cost?

A: [Her staff referred to a Civic Federation study that targeted the savings at $55 million annually.]

Q: Is it possible Cook County government could, by year’s end, be found in “substantial compliance” with the court-ordered Shakman Decree prohibiting most political hiring and firing?

A: I hope.

Q: No doubt there’s an ethical incentive, but isn’t there a financial incentive since the case has cost the taxpayers millions over the years?

A: This is something I inherited. It’s hard to understand why there wasn’t a more vigorous effort previously to come in to compliance and get out from under both the legal bills and the monitoring. I can’t tell you why they didn’t chose to do that. I will just tell you we’re vigorously pursuing coming in to compliance and not be obliged to pay $80,000 a month in legal bills.

Q: From county commissioners to lobbyists and even the press corps, we’re amazed at the swiftness of the public meetings. During the Stroger years, the meetings could go much of the day, now the regular meetings can go an hour, maybe two. Are you taking credit for that?

A: I didn’t go to them regularly before. I can’t tell you on the basis of personal experience why they took so long.

Q: As a personal style, you seem to be someone who likes to get it done and get it done now and move on to the next subject. Is that what’s happening here?

A: I don’t want to waste people’s time. We go through things as quickly as the board of commissioners would like.

Q: But should the public be worried that more of the business is being discussed and settled behind closed doors rather than in a public forum?

A: There are committee meetings. The same is true at City Council — the things that come to the body have been discussed in committee.

Q: Last month, seven employees from the President’s Office of Employment Training [POET] were suspended amid an investigation into “official misconduct.” What’s the status of the investigation and do you expect anyone to be fired?

A: It’s not my expectation they will return to work. What will happen to them, I’m not sure. Karin Norrington-Reaves, the new head of POET who we recruited from the state, came in and in pretty short order, found a number of irregularities. At this point I don’t know if Jessey [Neves, Preckwinkle’s spokesperson] wants her phone calls anymore because every time she calls, she’s reporting another bad things she’s found.

Q: Such as?

A: Let’s just say that there’s an ongoing investigation up there of bad activity.

Q: What has been done to get the job training office back on track, especially as unemployment still hovers around 9 percent?

A: So we brought in new people and they’re trying to get the lay of the land and what they’ve determined so far is a number of people needed to be gone. I presume, frankly, there’s a lot more people who are going to be gone.

Q: As the Sun-Times first reported, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger applied for unemployment — what are your thoughts?

A: I think it’s inappropriate. We had our staff look at it and we recommended against giving him unemployment benefits and now it’s something that’s the state must decide.

Q: And then Stroger’s former deputy chief of staff, ousted after her arrest on charges of stealing $300,000 in a sham contracting deal, is currently collecting unemployment benefits. While you can’t do anything to reverse that, what are your thoughts?

A: The previous administration opted not to object to her claims for unemployment. Clearly this is a mistake.

Q: When you announced the budget to the county board in February, you said that while good people would be losing their jobs, “shirkers and slackers” also would be shown the door — were you able to get rid of some of the latter?

A: The answer to that is yes.

Q: All of them or is there more work to do?

A. We’re doing performance management, so we’re going to try to figure out what folks are actually doing, make sure everybody has job descriptions, make sure they get periodic performance reviews and that’s not where we’ve been in the past.

Q: While you’ve gotten a rid of a lot of Stroger’s political hires, there are still plenty of employees hired during the Stroger administration. Could you talk about that?

A: We’re in a position where we can replace those who are Shakman exempt [political hires]. In the cases of others, it’s a matter of whether or not they perform. If they perform they’ll still be here, and if they don’t perform they won’t. Some of the people who came before us are still here and that’s because we have confidence in them.

Q: So you win last year’s primary and you’re gearing up for the November election when Mayor Daley announces he’s retiring. Any regrets that you didn’t wait and run for the city’s top office?

A: I decided the office that I was going to run for in December 2008. I presented myself to the voters in February and November as somebody who was committed to make real change in the county. I can’t see how I could honor the commitments to the voters of Cook County to run for this office by turning around on Labor Day and deciding to run for something else.

Q: That leaves open the question — would you have liked under a difference scenario — to run for that office?

A: I’ve got the job I worked for.

Q: How many times have you spoken with Mayor-elect Emanuel since his election and what kind of things can you work together on?

A: I met with him, I talked with him about public health, education and the criminal justice system. I was asked by [former city health commissioner and current Cook County chief medical officer] Terry Mason to talk to him about the city’s health clinics and the possibility over time of incorporating those clinics in to the county system and how that might work out. And he said he was willing to talk about that. I told him that the city’s education system is an engine for our criminal justice system, that we graduate 54 percent of our kids in the Chicago public schools and every adult in Chicago ought to be ashamed of that because a high school diploma is not simply your key to post-secondary education but a ticket to the workforce. Half of our kids are being left behind. That’s damning. When you have a population not very well-educated and not much opportunity in the job market, you have more problems with run-ins with the law. What I argued was that the failures of our public education in Chicago are having an impact on the county in terms of incarceration rates. And I’m tired of it.

Q: During your primary victory speech, you thanked the voters, campaign staff your husband and children as well as your parents for “encouraging me to dedicate my life to public service.” How did your mother and father nurture that?

A: My mother was a librarian, my father worked for the federal government. We used to have discussions about politics and stuff around the dinner table [growing up in St. Paul, Minn.] and I was a teacher first for 10 years, then did a variety work in government and the not-for-profit sector and then I got elected Alderman and served for 19 years.

The brother who is closest to me has had kind of a troubled history. My youngest brother is a probation officer in Hennepin County [Minnesota] and my sister is a librarian in Minneapolis.

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