I-Team

I-Team Report: The Checking Account

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A new online list is leading to questions about how Cook County is spending taxpayer dollars.

Cook County dipped into the age of transparency with online access to every payment the county makes. When county commissioners approved the register last year they noted that trust in government was at an all time low. But even when the mechanics of government are open to see, unless you actually look, transparency is worthless.

So the I-Team looked and found some surprises in the checking account.

In December, Cook County spent more than $2,000 for new portraits of most commissioners. President Todd Stroger liked his old portrait and decided against a new one. Payment for the photos is among thousands of entries in the new online check register posted by Cook County as part of its open government initiative.

"There is a great deal of skepticism when the public is kept away from how their dollars are being spent," said Lawrence Msall, president, Civic Federation.

Msall says the county needs to provide more specifics online about expenditures.

"By putting a light on what those contracts are, what those services are, they improve both the public's understanding and the county commissioners', and the county staff's understanding of how those kinds of expenses add up," said Msall.

In January, the county paid more than $3,000 to Killer Tracks, a company that provides stock music for county TV shows. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent in both December and January for landscaping around county buildings and the jail. Flagpole repair at 26th and California cost $1,360. And two payments of $12,375 went to Anka Shank Productions, a company that made flyers and did radio announcements for county home foreclosure seminars.

A county spokesman says Anka Shank is a big corporation throughout the country. But county records show only one Chicago address for the business. The I-Team found no city or state licenses for Anka Shank and the only company by that name on the Internet produces house music.

"It's the same old business in Cook County," said Jim Tobin, National Taxpayers United of Illinois, a group calling for lower taxes in Cook County.

"The bottom line is it's the spending. That's why we have higher property tax. It's not because of the assessment and the multiplier and all the baloney they want us to think it is. They want us to think it is. It's because of the spending. It's the old phrase we use in sales, when I was in sales. It's the spending, stupid," said Tobin.

One check for consulting services went to CROE TV, a production company in West Englewood that creates TV shows for cable access television. CROE stands for Coalition for the remembrance of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam for more than 40 years.

When the I-Team called CROE to find out what consulting services they were providing for the county, they hung up on us. When the I-Team went to their headquarters, a man with a camera emerged to greet us but didn't answer any questions.

According to a Cook County spokesman, the county pays CROE TV nearly $25,000 a year to appear on their cable access programs -- like Muhammad and Friends -- to talk about county initiatives.

County officials say if they didn't pay, they would only be allowed on once every six months.

"The Cook County Board, or 'Crook County Board' as I call them, should not be spending our money on religion. That's illegal, it's unconstitutional, it's outrageous," said Tobin.

Many of the entries on the register are for computer consulting contracts now supervised by Steve Edmonson, the county information technology chief who has been on the job for two months.

"Forty-five percent of my workforce is eligible for retirement. Most of the technology that people are familiar with in my staff, anyway, is older technology. One of the things we're trying to do with consultants is to get some ideas, new ideas and new approaches in actually providing information services to the county," said Edmonson.

Finally, there is a company called Kbloom run out of a house in suburban LaGrange. According to invoices the I-Team had to obtain through a Freedom of Information request, Kbloom was paid $24,000 for specialized graphic services. They re-designed your property tax bill.

The county wouldn't talk on camera about some of the payments saying they are less than $25,000 a year and "mean nothing in the broad scope of things." But $25,000 does mean something else: anything more than that requires competitive bidding.

www.cookcountygov.com/portal/server.pt/community/open_county_initiative/320/check_register

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