Monday, July 28, 2008

Political Perks: Cook County's Cars

Now that we have the dubious distinction of having the highest sales tax in the nation, you may be wondering what we're paying for. Do you think it's possible that sometimes, the "responsible" parties in Cook County don't know either? According to a Better Government Association news release,

On April 18, the BGA sent a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request to Cook County for records related to the Vehicle Steering Committee (“VSC”) – a panel created in 2005 to keep tabs on the county’s fleet and work toward reducing emissions. The Cook County Ordinance gives the VSC responsibility for overseeing county vehicle use, requiring department-heads and countywide elected officials to maintain and regularly submit reports related to the cars, their condition, and who has access to them.

Two months after the BGA sent its request, Cook County finally responded by providing sparse, out of date records, and a letter admitting that the County had not been living up to its self imposed requirements in regard to the Committee since at least 2005.
Ah. So the panel created in 2005 has not been living up to their legal responsibilities since, well, evidently since 2005. In a joint investigation the BGA and Fox News examined what infomation they were able to obtain, and found that many vehicles are being driven by politically connected individuals, family members, and campaign contributors, who don't really need the vehicles. From the Fox News report:
Jay Stewart with the Better Government Association said one name stuck out -- the law librarian, Bennie Martin. Martin is a steady contributor to the 8th Ward Democratic organization as well as the late Cook County president, John Stroger and his son, current president Todd Stroger. Stewart says he was "stupefied" that the librarian needed a car adding, "I can literally not think of a single legitimate reason, what there was an emergency law review article you have to file in the middle of the night? I don't think so!"
Of course there are others. (Remember that the list was sparse and out of date.) Fox reports:
Bruce Washington is the director of Capital Planning and a long-time Stroger family friend. James D'Amico is the assistant director of Facilities Management and brother of a state representative and nephew of an alderman. Neither man had any comment. New County Comptroller, John Morales says he needs a car because he also has financial duties at Stroger Hospital. Still others say they are on call 24-hours a day and need to be able to take a county car home. Highway Administrator Augie Olivo has a car. He is the brother of 13th ward alderman Frank Olivo. Jail Business Manager, Bryon Steele also takes home a car. He is the son of former Board president, Bobbie Steele and brother of Commissioner . . .
Who knows who else is on the well-favored drivers list? The VSC apparently doesn't, but Cook County CFO Donna Dunnings says she'll conduct a "thorough review". (Dunnings, you may remember, is Todd Stroger's first cousin, who was hired at $142,840 per year and got a 12% raise in March 2008 despite Stroger's promises to the contrary.) What good will her "review" do? Probably none, because Stroger says there is “no fat to cut” in the County’s budget.

So, if you're feeling ticked off about the sales tax increase - like maybe when you fill your tank with gas that's taxed ten times over, maybe you can take comfort in this: you are generously filling other folks' gas tanks with that hard-earned cash. So buck up. This is family values, Chicago style.

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