Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley has a favorite joke about all the county employees who live in Chicago’s 19th Ward, the South Side political base of Sheriff Michael Sheahan.

“What’s the top pickup line in the 19th Ward?” he asks, pausing just long enough for the question to sink in before delivering the punch line:

“Hey, baby, want to see my ‘M’ license plate?”

Those plates-the “M” stands for “municipal,” signifying a government car-make the joke a painful one for Quigley, one of a handful of commissioners trying to restructure the behemoth known as county government, where widespread patronage burdens the payroll. But the joke goes a long way toward explaining what’s wrong with Cook County, and why no one seems able to fix it.

At least, not yet.

There are some hopeful signs. After months of wrangling and debate, the County Board voted unanimously in late February to pass a 2005 budget of about $3 billion, with Quigley and his fellow insurgent commissioners beating back a new tax on restaurants and hotels proposed by board president John H. Stroger Jr.

In fact, the board never voted on the new taxes. Instead, the commissioners closed a $73-million shortfall with a series of amendments that trimmed various county programs, thus resolving this year’s budget battle but making little headway in the only fight that ultimately matters: eliminating the hundreds of jobs, perhaps thousands, many of them superfluous, that are pushing the county toward financial collapse.

If the City of Chicago’s budget suffers from a case of love handles, with needless layers of politically connected supervisors, then the county payroll is nothing short of obese. Largely ignored by the press except at budget time and barely a flicker on the average citizen’s radar, county government operates under a system of favoritism and job hiring that seems outdated even in the city that turned political patronage into an art form. “This isn’t a unit of government that thinks it needs to tighten its belt,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group. “This is a government that doesn’t even think it needs to wear a belt.”

Unlike Chicago, where the power ultimately resides in one central authority-Mayor Richard M. Daley-county government is more like a feudal system, with rival fiefdoms competing for the jobs that fuel their political influence. (For a brief outline of the role of Cook County government, see “The County Line”) Despite numerous calls for reform and stacks of detailed plans for streamlining the county bureaucracy, the officeholders who control the bulk of the patronage won’t give it up. “People say, If you let this person go, you’ll be offending that ward committeeman, and if you let that person go, that’s someone’s son or nephew,” says Forrest Claypool, another of the independent commissioners pushing for reform. “What we need is a big, bright spotlight. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Chicago analyzed the 24,000-strong county payroll by ZIP Code and compared it with a countywide list of 3.5 million registered voters, revealing a conspicuous pattern of jobholders living where the power is.

Not every employee owes his job to the local ward or township boss; after all, county workers have to live somewhere. Yet the areas with the highest concentrations of employees make up a murderers’ row of political clout. At the top of the list is Stroger, the ten-year incumbent president, whose County Board district is home to an estimated 3,700 workers. Stroger can tally 354 county employees-and at least 16 members of his political organization-just in the 8th Ward, where he is the longtime committeeman. Stroger also holds sway over the Forest Preserve District; many of its top jobs are held by 8th Warders and other beneficiaries of patronage.

Next up is Commissioner John P. Daley, brother of Chicago’s mayor and the County Board’s powerful finance chairman. He can find more than 3,000 county employees in his district, which includes much of the 11th Ward, where Daley is keeper of the family’s political organization; the 13th Ward, controlled by Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan, one of the state’s top power brokers; and Sheahan’s 19th Ward. The sheriff’s ward is home to at least 513 county workers; of those, 203 serve in departments directly under Sheahan’s control, and 23 have direct ties to the 19th Ward Democratic organization.

The employees living in Stroger’s and Daley’s districts account for 27 percent of the county payroll. Smaller fiefdoms are no less covetous of their power; about 900 employees live in west suburban Proviso Township, where the recorder of deeds, Eugene Moore, is the Democratic committeeman.

And Democrats aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on the payroll. Republican Carl R. Hansen, who represents the 15th district, in the northwest suburbs, is a longtime critic of county spending, particularly in the health care system, but he is far less critical of what the county spends on public safety. He represents 470 county employees spread over three suburban townships; of those, 134 work for the sheriff.

But patronage is not just about getting jobs for your immediate constituents; in a decentralized system like Cook County’s, the feudal lords are quick to defend their own budgets while pointing an accusing finger at all the others, and the stalemate that results usually turns into a tax increase. “Patronage is power and turf, and there’s a lot of ego involved,” says Quigley, whose 10th District includes much of the north lakefront. “If county government were kindergarten, we would all be sent home with a note saying we don’t work and play well together.”

The county’s annual budget crisis is like a nightmare episode of “Let’s Make a Deal,” he says. “Monty Hall is only pointing to two doors. One is a tax increase and the other is job cuts. What’s it going to be?”

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The answer to that question depends on which part of county government you’re looking at, the fiscal or the political. On the financial side, Cook County struggles with the same fundamental math problem confounding government budget makers everywhere: Revenues can’t keep up with expenses, no matter how many tax increases the commissioners pass.

In fact, the county appears to be running out of ways to raise more money. Higher real-estate taxes, once the engine of local government spending, were taken off the table long ago. Stroger points with pride to his record of holding the line on the property tax levy for the past four years, but the alternative has simply been more taxes on everything else: the so-called home rule taxes on merchandise, alcohol, cigarettes, gasoline, parking lots and garages, retail sales of cars and trucks, theatre and sporting events-even a “wheel tax” for operating a vehicle within the county limits.

In the past dozen years, revenues brought in by those taxes have increased by a whopping 315 percent, from $156.8 million in 1992 to an estimated $650.6 million in 2004. The defeated 2-percent tax Stroger proposed on restaurants and hotels would have added another $70 million to that total in 2005. At the same time, county fees-for everything from birth certificates to liquor licenses-continue to rise and are expected to bring in more than $900 million this year.

Raising additional taxes is not the only solution, says Msall of the Civic Federation. “The key to balancing the county budget is to get personnel costs down,” he says. “There’s no reason why the county should not be able to deliver the same or better services with less staff.”

The federation’s budget analysis, released in late January, strongly opposed the hotel and restaurant tax and called for eliminating vacant positions and built-in pay increases for county employees; privatizing some services, such as the janitorial employees controlled by the sheriff; and adopting much of the consolidation and efficiencies already proposed by county commissioners and others.

Most of all, Msall says, Stroger should use his full legal authority as president to rein in the county’s many fiefdoms. “All the studies that are necessary have taken place,” he says. But Stroger has not “introduced a budget that holds the line on spending and holds the other constitutional officers accountable.”

Stroger recalls that when he came into office a decade ago the Civic Federation told him his first priority was to stop the rise in property taxes. “I’ve done every conceivable thing that I can imagine to reduce reliance on real-estate taxes,” he says. Of the alternative taxes, he says, “I know it’s rough. I have to pay those taxes, too.” But, he asks, “how do [our critics] expect government to operate?”

Yet even all that extra money can’t keep pace with county spending. That’s because budgets are mostly about people; Cook County’s 25,870 budgeted positions (the current payroll stands at 24,505) eat up nearly two of every three dollars the county takes in. Despite modest cuts in the work force, spending still goes up because of built-in salary and cost-of-living increases and the rising cost of health care, pensions, and other benefits.

Many county employees are essential to delivering vital government services; those workers hold what the politicians like to call “critical” positions. The trouble is, officeholders like to characterize every job as critical, and that’s where the political side of county government comes in.

In January, for example, the Chicago Tribune reported that the county had hired more than 2,700 permanent employees, despite a hiring freeze imposed by Stroger in 2003. Many of the jobs legitimately fell into the critical category effectively exempted from the freeze: doctors and nurses for the hospitals, for example, and guards for the overcrowded Cook County Jail.

But others did not, and the county bosses couldn’t resist picking a few plum positions for their friends and relatives. The county recorder of deeds, Eugene Moore, gave his son a $44,000-a-year job as an administrative assistant and hired Thornton Township supervisor Frank Zuccarelli to be the director of his satellite offices, at $82,000 a year. Assessor James Houlihan picked up a communications director for $119,000. Stroger hired a special events coordinator and a couple of administrative assistants. Sheahan hired former Chicago alderman Vilma Colom as an assistant, then promoted her to director of youth services, for $62,000.

This is the kind of blatant political hiring that drives the county’s critics crazy, but it also makes them push harder for real cuts. And they don’t have to look far for suggestions. In fact, it’s hard to find county officials who don’t think the payroll can be trimmed, just as long as it’s not their payroll. That includes Stroger, who in December 2000 directed his own staff to report on potential cost savings. That team identified more than $100 million in savings through consolidation, privatization, reduced overtime, and job cuts across county government, including the budget’s two most expensive components: health and public safety. Many of their recommendations have not been enacted.

County insiders describe Stroger as a caring man, genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor and disadvantaged citizens who rely on his government’s substantial health care safety net. This year, Cook County will spend almost $900 million to operate its three public hospitals, 28 clinics, health services for detainees at the county jail, and numerous other programs.

But Stroger is also a hard-nosed politician who controls the health sector’s 8,115 jobs and resists any effort to dislodge them. It is these two attributes that make him at once a powerful guardian of Cook County’s mission and a stubborn protector of the political patronage system that threatens to bring it down.

In budget hearings this year, county health director Daniel Winship acknowledged that, yes, jobs could be eliminated or consolidated as a cost savings. Commissioner Claypool proposed saving as much as $10 million by eliminating many of the duplicative, less critical positions in the health bureau’s administrative, human resources, public affairs, and finance operations.

As many as 28 health workers from Stroger’s own 8th Ward could be affected by those cuts alone, Chicago‘s analysis shows. The board president told reporters that those changes should come slowly, to avoid any disruption in service.

Stroger says he isn’t opposed to restructuring county government; in fact, he says, he has advocated consolidation and other reforms for years. But he bristles at the suggestion that the mavericks on the County Board have the right answers. He dismisses Quigley as someone who “worked for the county, the city, and an alderman, and was never required to take a test.” And he points to Claypool’s former service as Mayor Daley’s chief of the Chicago Park District to suggest he may not be the independent he claims to be. Stroger’s opponents see “everybody else as a patronage employee,” he says. “I know patronage employees from the old days who came in early in the morning and stayed late at night. People are working hard.”

He adds, “This will never be solved until people stop being phony and come to the table with ideas to make our government fairer and more equitable for everybody.”

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And then there’s Michael Sheahan. Any attempt to make a significant dent in county spending would be difficult without help from the sheriff, who controls more than 6,600 jobs and $393 million in spending. If you’re served with a summons, arrested in an unincorporated part of the county, jailed, sent to a boot camp, or brought before a judge, you’ll run up against someone who works for Sheahan. In fact, on the way out of the courtroom, if you see a custodian cleaning up in the hallway, he’s likely one of Sheahan’s workers, too. The sheriff’s broad authority was established long ago, when much of suburban Cook was still unincorporated, and when common law making the office responsible for the care and safety of the county courthouse evolved into state statute.

Quigley, who has clashed with the sheriff over his budget for several years, says those laws are outdated and costly. Sheahan’s refusal to give up any of his duties makes him the biggest obstacle to a leaner, more efficient government, Quigley says, but few commissioners are willing to confront Sheahan’s patronage. “It’s a great no-no to challenge the budgets of law enforcement,” Quigley says. “The sheriff panders to the public’s fear of crime. We all want to be protected, but does that mean it has to be wasteful?”

Sheahan defends his budget vigorously, saying that unlike other department heads he has agreed to leave dozens of positions vacant until additional budget cuts can be found. And he rejects the notion that his budget can’t be touched. “Every line of my budget . . . [is] open to scrutiny by the county board,” Sheahan said in a written response to questions. He says Stroger has the power to modify his budget, and that the county board can “delete or add positions, as well as cut or increase expenses,” through budget amendments. “Any critic who argues that I have ‘too much’ control over my budget doesn’t understand the county’s budget process,” he says.

But Quigley is unrelenting. In the past two years, he has pushed for a virtual fire sale of the sheriff’s holdings. With only 64 square miles of unincorporated Cook County left to patrol (municipal police cover the rest), he wants to dissolve the sheriff’s police department and transfer its duties to the adjacent suburban governments. (The county could pay these municipalities for the added burden and still save $10 million annually, Quigley says.) Quigley also recommends privatizing the custodians and the process servers, and he wants to transfer the corrections department to a bureau of public safety under the board president. Instead of hiring more jail guards, he says, the sheriff could shift some of his displaced police officers and sheriff’s deputies and retrain them as corrections officers.

“This is a man looking for work, and he’ll do anything to protect his fiefdom,” Quigley says.

Sheahan labels these proposals “a healthy dose of wishful thinking.” Sheriff’s police assist suburban police departments as evidence technicians and homicide detectives, he says, and provide other services. He adds that the suburban departments aren’t interested in taking jurisdiction over unincorporated Cook County. “Faced with a tough budget crisis, you could see why some County Board members would want to save money by simply jettisoning one of county government’s primary duties,” he says. “But running government isn’t that easy.”

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It’s a shame more citizens don’t show up for the county’s budget hearings. There’s a lot to learn, and even if you can’t follow all the facts and figures, the exchanges between the commissioners and the county department heads can sometimes make for great political theatre.

Case in point: the January 19th hearing on the forest preserve district’s budget, which is governed by the County Board. Commissioner Anthony Peraica, whose district includes the southwest suburbs, was grilling general superintendent Steven Bylina about the number of supervisors on his payroll. Peraica insisted there were too many; Bylina responded that the supervisors were “doing a job that was very much needed.”

In one exchange, Peraica zeroed in on Samuel Simone, the Democratic committeeman of Palos Township, who had been added to the payroll in October as one of Bylina’s administrative assistants, at a salary of more than $68,000 per year.

“What exactly does Mr. Simone do?” Peraica asked.

“Mr. Simone’s position is one I believe is necessary,” came Bylina’s reply. “He’s in charge of the refurbishing of our picnic tables.”

The hearing room, filled mostly with commissioners’ staff members and forest preserve employees, quieted, except for a few stifled snickers. Asked to present Simone’s credentials for doing such a task, Bylina said his new assistant brought considerable “management experience” to the job.

The forest preserve was once an obscure part of county government, the ideal place to hide the most egregious patronage hires. But in the past two years, the scandals coming out of the district have been fast, furious, and very public: politically connected staffers living virtually rent free in homes on forest preserve property, workers with suspended or revoked licenses driving district vehicles, charges of ghost payrolling, and a host of other shenanigans.

But the biggest scandal, commissioners say, is the forest preserve budget. Three years ago, after an earlier financial audit had turned up a $16-million deficit, Stroger cut the district’s work force by almost half, eliminating 192 jobs by privatizing the golf courses, cutting 219 vacant positions, and trimming another 62 positions through restructuring.

Stroger fired many frontline workers who actually tended the district’s 68,000 acres, but left most of the district’s politically connected supervisors untouched. In December 2003, Claypool introduced an alternative forest preserve budget to restore many of the jobs that had been eliminated and to cut the supervisory ranks. It failed.

The forest preserve payroll is a microcosm of what ails county government as a whole. The district is filled with patronage, tied to the political organizations of Stroger and other power brokers. The 8th Warders include purchasing agent Carmen Triche and maintenance superintendent Leroy Taylor, who both make $90,000 a year; deputy comptroller Alvin Lee, who is paid $75,400; and many other supervisors and superintendents.

P. J. Cullerton, the 38th Ward Democratic committeeman, makes $90,000 as executive assistant to the general superintendent; Frank Damato, a member of Cullerton’s organization and a former alderman and county commissioner, gets paid $81,000 as the intergovernmental affairs coordinator. Damato earned notoriety in 2003 after newspaper articles singled him out for his expensive suits and questionable job duties; one story called him the “Ed McMahon of county government, as his only job seems to be standing around at board meetings and laughing at President Stroger’s jokes.”

In addition to Simone, the other administrative assistant to the superintendent is Joseph Bishop, who makes $79,600. Bishop is a longtime member of Michael Madigan’s 13th Ward organization, as is maintenance superintendent Richard Bono, who is paid $68,800. Two 36th Ward operatives, maintenance superintendent Frank Mole and maintenance supervisor Leonard Buczco, earn $75,500 and $69,100, respectively.

This year, when the district needed to raise an additional $61 million, Stroger suggested a 13.6-percent increase in the property tax (something he would never propose for the much larger county budget). It was not the first time; between fiscal years 2000 and 2004, when the county was keeping property taxes flat, the forest preserve added $7.6 million to its share of the levy.

At the February 8th vote on the forest preserve’s budget, Claypool presented a series of amendments to change the district’s spending plan: One measure recommended cutting Simone’s job; another cut Damato’s. A third eliminated 24 administrative and financial positions, which Claypool says can be absorbed by the county; still another restored 15 laborer positions while reducing the nine regional and maintenance supervisory positions down to two.

And one by one, every amendment went down to defeat. So why was the commissioner smiling? “Any county official running for re-election is going to have a hard time justifying a vote for higher taxes,” Claypool says. “This is no longer about whispers and rumors. These things are documented in screaming headlines.”

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So now what? After defeating the restaurant and hotel tax proposal, can the newly emboldened commissioners take the next step and begin to cut into the county’s wall of patronage?

They seem to be moving in the right direction. In December 2003, nine commissioners defeated Stroger’s proposal to increase the sales tax and create a new tax on rentals (from snowblowers to appliances), prompting an irritated Stroger to remark, “People think we should have 17 presidents of the County Board.” In the end, the board voted 9 to 8 to increase the cigarette tax by 82 cents a pack.

Claypool sees progress in the votes. “We need to take some of the money tied up in patronage and spend it on the county’s core mission,” he says. “We can redirect money that’s being wasted into saving lives and improving the quality of life for our citizens.”

But the biggest obstacle to reform may be the obscure nature of county government. In Chicago, people may know their alderman’s name and they have no trouble identifying Daley as the man in charge. Chicagoans see evidence of city government every day, when the garbage gets picked up, the streets are plowed, and police patrol the streets. They may think the city could work better and eliminate patronage, but at least they can see their taxes at work.

Not so at the county. Few people can identify their county commissioner, and fewer still know how the board works. Stroger may be the president, but the county government has many masters, and none is the master of all. What’s more, county government rarely touches our lives directly. Nor do we especially want it to: You need the county if you’re sick and can’t afford a doctor, if you’re the victim of a crime or are charged with committing one.

The best-known offices are the ones that assess the value of your home, figure the tax, and send you the bill to collect it. Even there, nobody can quite figure out who does what. That’s part of the problem, says Quigley. “When you spread out responsibility, you lose accountability,” he says. “The treasurer can say, ‘Don’t blame me; I just collect the tax.’ The assessor says, ‘Don’t blame me; I just go out and place a value on the house’; the clerk says, ‘Don’t blame me; I just set the rate.'”

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More budget troubles appear to lie ahead. In early February, the Civic Federation warned that local government pension funds, including those of the county and the forest preserve district, were facing shortfalls in the billions. If the government can’t pay out those benefits, Cook County and other local government officials will be forced to raise property taxes or make major service cuts. And that will probably get everyone’s attention.

Change will happen when the taxpayers decide to get outraged, Quigley says. “The ultimate test is whether the public can take these complex issues, understand them-even if they don’t impact them directly-and then force their elected officials to make change.

“I’m no libertarian,” he says. “What the county does really matters. I think government service has a valid purpose. And the fact that some of the things we do, we don’t do very well, doesn’t negate that.”

Sounds as if the 2006 campaign has already begun.