Monday, November 30, 2015

Forest Preserve District proposes flat budget for 2016


The FPDCC presented a flat budget for 2016.  Most of the public testimony at the budget hearing supported the proposed budget which preserved all programs. Many public speakers described their good working relationship with the district and how current programs have benefitted their constituents. Speakers included representatives from Green Corps Chicago, University of Illinois Extension, FPDCC's Conservation Corps, Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project, Growing Solutions (a program for developmentally challenged students from Al Raby High School that grows vegetables for Brookfield Zoo animals); Mujeres Latinas en Accion, El Valor, Chicago Botanic Garden, and Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo). Several speakers gave moving testimonials on how FPDCC's programs have personally impacted them, giving them opportunities and, for some, a chance to turn their lives around.  All speakers supported expansion of current programs.

Representatives of various Cook County equestrian groups objected to having to pay a fee to use the trails, which were the precursors of today's bike/walking trails and paths.  Many equestrians are members of the Trail Watch volunteer program that informs FPDCC when trees have fallen across trails or block stream flow, or there are other issues needing attention. Most of the surrounding counties do not assess a trail users fee. The collected annual fees ($34 for residents/$49 for non-residents; daily fee is $4) are supposed to be used for "equestrian amenities".  However, of the $80,000 in fees collected the past two years, the only identifiable amenity the four public speakers have seen is seven hitching posts.  They asked to see the equestrian amenities plans.

Forest Preserve Foundation President Shelley Davis highlighted their accomplishments as described in their 2015 annual report , and strategic plan. As an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the foundation encourages and administers private gifts to further the district's mission and goals. Aligned with the Next Century Conservation Plan and the Centennial Campaign Plan, the foundation focuses on building a base of partners and supporters.  Highlights included raising $168,000 at the Conservation Cup Golf Tournament, which will allow for expansion of the FPDCC's Conservation Corps program.  Due to pension payment uncertainties, the financial support from the foundation will become increasingly important.

More critical of the proposed budget was Lawrence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, which submitted 57 pages of comments on the budget (unclear as to whether those comments also addressed the Cook County Board's budget.) Msall said FPDCC needs a contingency plan for funding pension obligations if pension reforms don't happen. He called for separation of the FPDCC from the Cook County Board, and stated that the current governance & budget aren't sufficiently transparent.

Also concerned about the impact of pension payments on future programs was Benjamin Cox, Exec. Dir. of Friends of the Forest Preserve.  Based on his review of page 17 of the budget, pension obligations will not strain the budget in 2016, but the picture will be different in 2017. He expressed concern that the Resource Management funds which are critical to the district's core mission, will be sacrificed to the pensions.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin picked up on this theme with his similar concern, and General Superintendent Arnold Randall agreed that pension payments are the elephant in the room for the 2017 budget.

Commissioners will vote on the budget at the December 15, 2015 meeting.

In other matters. . .
  • Commissioner Larry Suffredin reported on his annual survey of picnic permit users.  One hundred fifty-one (151) respondents out of 400 identified the need for more recycling bins, cleaner restroom facilities, and suggested adding power to picnic shelters.  Signage regarding water pump usage is also necessary. 
  • The new campgrounds will be open during winter for cross-country skiing.

Agenda items included the following. . .
  • The proposed collective bargaining agreement, salary schedule, wage adjustments and health care plan were referred to the Labor Committee (#15-0584); a leave of absence policy for organ donors was also proposed (Item #15-0618).
  • An audit of evaluating the effectiveness of internal controls over procurement card usage was referred to the Audit Committee (#15-0596).
  • Proposed contracts include $200,000 for a second large truck capable of removing & transporting large logs (#15-0602); an increase in rock salt & de-icing materials (total contract amount will be $384,000; the City of Chicago and FPDCC bid jointly with the supplier; #15-0603)
  • Proposed $1.12 million contract for restoration of 366 acres of the Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve (Palos area).  This site is the #1 priority for restoration as identified in the 2014 Next Century Conservation Plan. (#15-0607); proposed agreement with Openlands and Army Corps of Engineers to develop a work plan to restore valuable remnant wetland communities and the surrounding watershed at Deer Grove West (#15-0620).  The 500 acre Deer Grove West was  FPDCC's first acquisition when it was established 100 years ago.  Costs of this project will be funded via the O'Hare Modernization Mitigation Account designed to address off-site wetland impacts from the O'Hare expansion. Deer Grove West is in the top five priorities for restoration according to the Natural & Cultural Resources Master Plan.
  • Proposed partnership with The Nature Conservancy to collaborate on wildfire management activities (Item #15-0621).
  • Proposed 10 year license to Waste Management of Illinois, Inc. to install & operate an additional groundwater monitoring well in Beaubien Woods, across the Bishop Ford Highway, from the CID Landfill. License fees exceed $12,000 this year. (#15-0613)
  • Proposed contract ($675,000) with Constellation Energy Services to supply district wide electricity (#15-0615)
Submitted by Sheri Latash

Unexpected Increase in Charity Care Disclosed at Health and Hospitals System Board Meeting

November 20, 2015, 10:30am 

Chairman Hill Hammock noted that the CCHHS Finance Committee immediately preceded the Board meeting (9-10:30am) due to scheduling issues which prohibited it from being convened during the prior week.  He determined that the Finance Committee report would not be repeated during the full Board of Directors meeting as all but one Director was able to attend the Finance Committee.
He stipulated that Director Marsh, who could not attend the Finance Committee, was free to pose any questions she thought were warranted for her to be fully informed on all Board actions.

Committee Reports:
Finance Committee:  Director Marsh asked several questions about the $72,099,000, 3 year contract (4-1-16 through 3-31-19) with Valence Health which is replacing IlliniCare as the current 3rd party administrator of CountyCare (Medicaid).  Doug Elwell, Deputy CEO, responded that this was a competitive bid selection and is expected to save CCHHS $10-15 million per year.  Some of the reasons for the savings include bringing in-house some services that IlliniCare was tasked with including Behavioral Health care integration which will now be the responsibility of the individual provider.  Mr. Elwell concurred that the primary reason for severing the contract with IlliniCare, mid-contract period, was the increasing direct competition of IlliniCare’s managed care health plan with CountyCare which was felt to represent a conflict of interest.  Dir. Marsh questioned the level of diversity on the Board of Valence Health and diversity in the other levels of management and contracts with minority owned businesses.  Mr. Elwell and Chair Hammock indicated that Valence met CCHHS’s diversity policy. She asked whether this was the most costly outside contract that CCHHS was signing.  Mr. Elwell replied that it was second to the Cerner contract which was the largest.
Doug Elwell reported that October revenues were down due to lower numbers of patient hospitalizations, although length of stay was not decreased, meaning there was a need for better managed care interventions.  CCHHS is still owed $120 million by the State of Illinois (not paid due to budget impasse) and he said CCHHS may have to loan funds to the State to obtain Federal matching funds for Medicaid and other programs.  Director Lerner cautioned about the future when the State will be required to pay 10% of the cost of the newly eligible PPACA members (ObamaCare) by 2020; “the system can not look the same”.

Charity care has unexpectedly increased from what was thought to be a plateau in 2014. This is due to:
  1. overflow from other hospitals that have restricted charity care; 
  2. patients with an Affordable Care Act plan with unaffordable high deductibles are coming to CCHHS and refusing to complete charity care forms so their care can not be counted as charity for calculating the Federal Disproportionate Share Hospital payments.  Most of this will be considered “bad debt”.
Director Velasquez noted that 17 of the 20 healthcare cooperatives created under the ACA have failed and these patients will be coming to CCHHS.

Chair Hammock noted that the CCHHS 2016 budget was approved by the Cook County Board.  He asked Mr. Elwell whether CCHHS would be able to stay within the budget in 2016 and Elwell responded that he predicted a “breakeven”.

Quality and Patient Safety Committee:  Dr. Das reported that there were no real improvements in the metrics, including patient willingness to recommend Stroger Hospital.  Multidimensional interventions including rounding on the wards by staff are on-going.
CEO Shannon reported that they expect the JCAHO inspection before the end of November and all departments are devoting extraordinary care and time to prepare.  Dir. Gugenheim pointed out that the inspectors look at trends and therefore, the slow improvement will overcome the less than optimal metrics.

Special presentation on Group Purchasing Organizations (GPO) which allow group purchasing by member hospitals/groups of supplies, pharmaceuticals, services at a discount taking advantage of the economy of scale. The speaker stated that the 5 top GPOs cover the majority of healthcare in the USA.  Value of GPOs include lower cost, better reliability and transparency of the process. GPOs are free to the member hospitals and charge the vendors for being a part of the group. In addition to major set discounts, hospital members may earn a dividend/rebate (called patronage) based on volume.  CCHHS earns over 1 million dollars a year in this “rebate”.  A 1986 Federal statute grants GPOs a “safe harbor” from the “kickback” laws.

Dir. Lerner wondered what happens when the GPOs consolidate leading to a monopoly.  Dir. Marsh asked whether providers (physicians) had input into the selection of vendors/vendor products and was told “yes”.

Report of the Cook County Department of Public Health (administratively a part of CCHHS)
Dr. Terry Mason presented a powerpoint of the services provided by CCDPH including food establishment inspections, environmental health, vector control, etc.  The lead poisoning prevention program and lead abatement plan is undertaken when the lead level is greater than 10 micrograms/dl. Paint used prior to 1978, still present in many of the older CC buildings, often contained lead. Dir. Lowry, who served in the past as commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Buildings, was concerned that the high level of lead that triggered abatement exceeded the threshold for federal grants and could be a health catastrophe. She indicated that a level of 2 micrograms/dl is the safe level. Dr. Mason agreed, but added that it was very expensive to undertake lead abatement and the money was not available.

The meeting adjourned to closed session at 1:20pm.

Submitted by Susan Kern,MD, LWV CC Health Issues Committee

Friday, November 20, 2015

No Lock-Step Votes as Board Approves 2016 $4.5 Billion Budget as Amended

2016 Cook County Proposed Budget:  Finance Committee and Board Meetings, Nov. 18, 2015

President Preckwinkle was successful in getting the votes to approve all Amendments to the Executive Budget she supported during the Finance Committee meeting and then in winning approval of both the new revenues and overall spending plan for the $4.5 billion budget at the Board Meeting. One of the interesting aspects of the November 13 Finance Committee meeting, which dealt with the additional revenue sources for the 2016 budget, and the November 18 meeting of the Finance Committee to deal with proposed Amendments to the Budget, was that there were different Commissioners voting for and against the differing proposals.  The same held true during the Board meeting in which the related budget proposals were passed.  In past years, it was common to see the same Commissioners voting together. 

Voting yes to approve the entire budget, as amended, were Commissioners Arroyo, Boykin, Butler, Daley, Gainer, Garcia, Moore, Murphy, Silvestri, Sims, Steele, and Tobolski.  Voting no were Commissioners Fritchey, Goslin, Morrison, Schneider, and Suffredin.  Commissioners Fritchey, Schneider, and Suffredin stated that their opposition was largely based on the tax increases used to support the spending plan, especially the sales tax and hotel tax.

In addition, the following Commissioners voted in opposition to one or more of the other Administration-supported budget-related proposals: Gainer, Murphy, Silvestri, and Tobolski.  Also, Commissioners Boykin, Daley, Fritchey, Goslin, Schneider, and Sims voted against (with Commissioner Suffredin voting present) the two proposals to increase Clerk of the Court fees.

Amendments Delay COLA Increase for Non-Union Employees and Increase Money for Chief Judge’s Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program
The Finance Committee considered 24 proposed amendments to the budget, approving 12 and voting down 4, with 8 withdrawn by sponsors after discussions.  Most of the Amendments approved were non-controversial corrections.  All Commissioners also supported the partial restoration of money for the Chief Judge’s Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program to bring the program up to 60% of the 2015 budget, utilizing additional monies from the Adult Probation Service Fee and the Social Service/Probation and Court Service Fees. 

However, there was much discussion about the proposal to delay until June 1, 2016, the previously approved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 2% for non-union County employees that had been scheduled to be effective on December 1, 2015.  The Chief of Staff for the State’s Attorney’s Office  talked about the disparate impact this delay would have on that office that has one of the largest number of non-union employees:  the office is 3% of the budget, but its employees will bear 22% of the total cost savings through the delay in salary increase.  Another complaint was that this Amendment, like all the others, was posted on the County’s web site less than 24 hours prior to the scheduled start of the meeting.  Nevertheless, the Amendment passed by a vote of 14-3, with Commissioners Fritchey, Murphy, and Suffredin voting no. 

Commissioner Fritchey ended up withdrawing 3 proposed amendments which offered an across the board cut of 1% in lieu of the hotel tax and ticket re-sellers’ tax, knowing that the votes weren’t there to pass them.  Also withdrawn was a proposal to add $500,000 for restorative justice for grants from the Justice Advisory Council.  The head of that Council spoke against the proposal saying that it preferred to first see whether the existing grants were producing positive results before giving out more money. 

One Amendment that failed to pass was sponsored by Commissioners Arroyo and Suffredin which would have eliminated 9 positions from  the Clerk of the Court’s Inspector General department in favor of adding 11 Asst. State’s Attorney positions.  Comm. Arroyo stated that based on what the Clerk of the Court had said the duties of the Inspector General’s department in her office were (to investigate complaints of fraud and abuse in that office), the Commissioner believes these positions are redundant to the duties of the State’s Attorney.  Another Commissioner wondered why the Clerk of the Court didn’t just use the County’s Inspector General.  However, the Clerk of the Court’s Chief of Staff said that its employees in the Inspector General’s department also had to transfer evidence, such as bags of heroin, to and from court, and transfer large sums of money around, which you wouldn’t want the average employee in the Clerk’s office to do.  Commissioners Daley, Fritchey, Gainer, Garcia, and Tobolski joined with Commissioners Arroyo and Suffredin, but the Amendment failed with 10 Commissioners voting against. 

Also failing was an Amendment sponsored by Commissioner Steele to add 3 investigative positions to the Public Defender’s office by increasing the turnover adjustment for that department.  Commissioners Arroyo, Fritchey, Moore, Murphy, and Suffredin joined Steele in supporting, but 10 other Commissioners voted no.

The Finance Committee and Board meetings to deal with the budget began at 2 pm, after all the regularly scheduled committee and Board meetings that day.  These budget meetings ended at about 6:20 pm. 

-- Submitted by Priscilla Mims, League Observer

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Municipal Dispute Causes Controversy at October Forest Preserve District Board Meeting

September and October 2015 Forest Preserve District of Cook County Board Meetings

September 2015
--Due to the budget impasse in Springfield, $4.5 million in grants from the State have been suspended.  These grants include funding for dam removal to improve stormwater management & habitat restoration; strategic land acquisitions; invasive species training and control; projects at Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, among other things. Though awarded, these grants are on indefinite freeze. According to the FPDCC, the suspension "jeopardizes the State's ability to attract future federal funding and threatens to waste investments already made..." In response to the suspension, the commissioners  approved a resolution calling for the release of frozen grant funds, to be sent to Governor Rauner with copies to IDNR and IEPA. (#15-0531)

--Item #15-0467 addressed a report about expansion of the Conservation Corps, a strategy for training out-of-school youth (ages 18-24), as well as those involved with the justice system, which is a priority of the Next Century Conservation Plan. 

--The FPDCC receives 1-2 calls a week from donors wanting to honor or memorialize someone with a tree or bench in the preserves. The Forest Preserve Foundation will now manage the tree & bench donation program. (#15-0481)

--Through Chicago Wilderness, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given FPDCC a $20,000 grant (with a $20,000 match) to make FPDCC the premiere birding destination, to promote birding to diverse audiences, and to provide birding resources to new & experienced birders. (#15-0487)

October 2015

FPDCC access to Lake Michigan water at its largest police facility was the issue that triggered extensive and heated public testimony as well as much commissioner discussion--beginning with the September Board meeting and continuing for more than three hours at the October Board meeting.  It is unlikely that FPDCC Superintendent Arnold Randall anticipated such a vigorous response to what  appeared to be a straightforward request. That is, the FPDCC asked the Village of Palos Park to provide Lake Michigan water to its police substation in unincorporated Lemont Township because the shallow well that has been providing water is failing. Additionally, at a future date, Palos Park could be asked to supply water and sewer services to the nearby FPDCC campgrounds.

In reality, the testimony during discussion of  Real Estate Item 15-0198 had little to do with supplying water through an intergovernmental agreement, as you will read below.

Palos Park's response to FPDCC was that they could only provide water & sewer services to properties within its corporate boundaries.  Thus, FPDCC requested annexation to Palos Park. (It's worth noting that 30% of the FPDCC's holdings lay within the corporate boundaries of Palos Park.  Annexation does not involve transfer of land nor any rights to the land by Palos Park.) 

The controversy that ensued between Palos Park and Lemont's village government & many Lemont residents began with the fact that the 152 acre tract on which FPDCC police facility is located is contiguous to the village of Lemont but not contiguous with Palos Park.  Large tracts of FPDCC land separate Palos Park's corporate boundaries from the 152 acres proposed for annexation (the southeast corner of Bell & McCarthy Rds.). 

Given this physical separation, how could annexation to Palos Park occur?  A recent change in state law now allows for such annexations by  "jumping over" the forest preserves, in essence using them as a bridge.

Why should the Village of Lemont (which is on well water) care that Palos Park has been asked to supply Lake Michigan water to the FPDCC police substation? Lemont's real concern is not about providing water to this 152 acres, but that annexation of this parcel by Palos Park would give Palos the needed link to annex more than 1,400 acres in unincorporated Lemont Township. Lemont is concerned about the density of future development and its impact on Lemont schools, library, & park district; and nearby homeowners fear smaller lot sizes will affect their quality of life and property values.  However, the three major owners of the 1,400 acres in question (Cog Hill Country Club, Gleneagles Country Club, and Ludwig Farms) dispute the claims and characterization of their future development intentions by Lemont village government and its citizens; and those three owners prefer annexation by Palos Park rather than Lemont. 

As became abundantly clear during the 3+ hours of testimony in which Palos Park, the FPDCC, and the major landowners were demonized by some of the 26 public speakers, neither village made any effort to talk with the other about the proposed annexation--much to the chagrin of the FPDCC commissioners. In the end, the FPDCC approved the annexation.  Commissioners Richard Boykin and Larry Suffredin dissented, with Suffredin commenting that their approval improperly injected the FPDCC in the middle of regional land use planning.

The possible future development of this 1,400 acres is a saga going back more than 10 years. A more detailed account was reported in the Chicago Tribune.  
Other October agenda items of note. . .

--Resting points for users of the North Branch trail will be enhanced by Friends of the Forest Preserve's donation of up to $42,000 for the purchase and installation of up to 21 benches and 14 bicycle racks at specified locations. (#15-0538)

--The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has given a $50,000 grant for restoration of 22 acres of migratory bird habitat in LaBagh Woods on Chicago's northwest side. The project is a partnership with the Chicago Park District, Friends of the Chicago River, Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute, Chicago Audubon Society, Chicago Ornithological Society, the Bird Conservation Network, and Greencorps. (#15-0545)

--USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has extended through September 2017 its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to improve habitat for marshland birds at Eggers Woods in Chicago.  The $56,000 grant has a $28,000 match from FPDCC. (#15-0550)

--Also through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, USDA's NRCS is extending its grant (which requires $42,000 in matching funds) for work at Turnbull Woods, specifically to improve amphibian habitat and suitability for migratory bird stopovers. (#15-0553) 

--A  two-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant of ~$123,000 (with a $43,000 match by FPDCC) will permit 35 acre habitat restoration of the king rail, an Illinois endangered bird species, at Barrington's Crabtree Nature Center.  The grant also involves the banding & monitoring of birds (#15-0568).

Submitted by Sheri Latash