Cook County Board Commissioner Earlean Collins is used to taking a few lumps. The Oak Park resident, who previously served in the Illinois General Assembly and was elected county commissioner first in 1996, says she often gets “kicked around” for speaking her mind.
“I don’t bow to anybody,” said Collins, who was the first black woman elected to the General Assembly. “I don’t say nice things to the media to get them to endorse me. I just put it out there the way it is.”
Collins hopes to defeat three challengers in next week’s Feb. 2 Democratic primary election for her 1st District seat. But Collins did take a beating in the press for her vote for board President Todd Stroger’s controversial sales tax hike. The 1.25-percent increase made the city of Chicago’s 10.25-percent sales tax the highest in the nation. Suburban Cook County saw its sales tax hover around 9 percent.
Collins originally voted in support of the measure with an understanding that money would be used to fund the temporary independent hospital board, which oversees the county hospital system. Collins said Stroger reneged on a promise to rollback a quarter of the increase if the county received funds from President Obama’s stimulus plan.
“We got the additional money for health care, and, at that point, I’m assuming Todd was going to keep his word and roll back the tax. And he didn’t,” she said.
Throat surgery forced Collins to miss a vote to repeal the increase. But she voted present twice when the board failed to override Stroger’s veto. Collins said her present vote was an effort to broker a compromise to gradually reduce the sales tax. She wanted the sales tax to decrease if the county exceeded its revenue projections and to remain in place if the county’s faced a shortfall. The goal, Collins said, was to secure the county’s bond rating and keep county hospitals open.
“Those are the kinds of leadership positions I take that most legislators don’t take,” she said.
Collins, however, stressed that the board should do more to trim the fat before raising taxes. To save money, Collins believes that the county should examine crime-prevention programs. She also noted some of the county’s financial woes can be attributed to the state. Collins said county residents are on the hook for the thousands of mental health clients released from closed state mental health institutions.
She contends those individuals land in Cook County Jail. Collins believes these individuals are better served in nonprofit residential treatment facilities.
“The greatest percentage of our budget is public safety and health care,” she said. “Our budget would be reduced substantially if we could bring down the cost of those operations.”
When asked if the hospital board should be made permanent, Collins said that it should, but is skeptical of the current board. She added that the “verdict is out” on whether the board is devoid of political clout.
“My goal is to see that hospital system become independent and operated to sustain itself,” Collins said.
The commissioner recalled that her greatest accomplishment was helping pass a reform package that created more transparency in county government. Most county residents, she said, know little of what the county government does, other than assess property taxes and provide health care for the indigent. The reform package changed the rules requiring all legislation, ordinances and resolutions to go before committees where residents could have input. Previously, Collins said, that was not the case.
“It was similar to how things operated in the state senate. We changed it to make the county more transparent by opening up that process,” Collins said. “That’s accountability.”
Additionally, Collins said she worked to amend county ethics laws and purchasing agreements to end sweetheart contracts, and, more noticeably, called for a special prosecutor to investigate abuses at Cook County Jail. These measures, she insists, are aimed to change the nature of Cook County, which, Collins added, is tainted by corruption. When asked to elaborate, Collins said she didn’t want to turn the election into a battle of words.
“I’m not [Cook County Commissioner Tony] Peraica,” she quipped. “This is election time, and I’m not going to be out there talking.”
But she said her accomplishments should speak for themselves, including her efforts to secure $3.5 million to help homeowners avoid foreclosure through mediation. The funds pay for court cost and an arbitrator. The idea, she said, is to help homeowners work out a payment plan with their banks. Concerning whether the county needs new leadership, Collins recalled that people urged her to stay in office and put off retirement in order to run again.
But Collins maintained that the leadership question may not be extended to Stroger, who faces three challengers in the board president race.
“I really think they have damaged him so much and he made some mistakes, but if he wins, it has to be something that was ordained to be,” she said.