Republican incumbent Peter Silvestri is the Sun-Times’ endorsed candidate in the 9th district race for Cook County Board.
On Sept. 19, Silvestri appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for re-election to the Cook Cook County Board of Commissioners in the 9th District in the November 2018 general election. Watch how he responded in the video above, and read his answers below to our questionnaire on the issues facing Cook County.
Silvestri is running against Democrat Frank L. McPartlin.
Cook County has cut its spending and probably will pass a budget that includes no new revenues. Given the county government’s resources and responsibilities, what else would you do to cut or to generate sustainable revenues? How much would money would that save or generate? Are you willing to vote for new taxes or fees? Please be specific.
Silvestri: Property taxes were enacted when owning property meant the owner was wealthy and could afford such taxes. This is not valid today. We learned from the sugar tax, which I opposed from the start, that new taxes are not the solution. We need to have a forward-looking, technology-aware, creative approach to finding new sources of revenue.
I have asked our Revenue Department to explore sponsorships as long as they are mutually beneficial and can be done tastefully, which is underway at the forest preserve district. The assessor has allowed very limited advertising, which generates $800K per year. Other elected officials could do the same, and some agencies, such as the hospital, could benefit from, say, the sponsorship of a waiting room.
The additional closing of the underutilized area courtrooms in the City of Chicago will reduce costs (similar to the closing of courtrooms at the Belmont/Western police station).
The county needs to continue to employ headcount reduction that does not reduce our mission. While we have made great strides in significantly reducing the number of employees, more than 83% of our expenses go to personnel and related costs. I am not, however, in favor of blanket, across-the-board cuts, which tend to disproportionately impact the smaller, more efficient, and sometimes revenue-generating departments at the expense of the larger ones.
I would choose common-sense measures of cutting the county’s payroll. In addition to those mentioned above, we still have opportunities to merge departments that are now handled by the other elected officials (inspector generals, HR, procurement, to name a few) into one streamlined office for those functions.
The county has made a huge investment in technology, and we should see the corresponding reduction in personnel as a result. One example is the new e-filing for civil cases in the Clerk of the Court’s Office, which is expected to save $6 million.The county needs to pursue ways to cut payroll costs in addition to cutting payroll. Some of those costs include eliminating, for example: one paid holiday, which is estimated to save $6.3 million; better scrutinizing the usage of overtime and FMLA; reducing travel expenses; exploring ways to streamline with the City of Chicago (see below).
The county needs the cooperation of the unions for some changes, and for others, such as pension reform, it needs the cooperation of the state. I am committed to working with both. I do not take the elimination of jobs lightly. I picture an individual with a family, not a generic position, when making such decisions. But it is painfully clear that we are hemorrhaging population in the county because people are fed up with the current tax situation, and relying on continually increasing taxes as a solution will only drive more people out and harm the business environment that we would instead would like to nurture.
I would support fees where reasonable and necessary. For example, we recently needed to increase some fees related to building and zoning in unincorporated areas to keep them on par with what those fees are elsewhere and to help cover the costs of our Building and Zoning Department duties there.
Who is Peter Silvestri?
He’s running for: Cook County Board of Commissioners, 9th District
His political/Civic Background: Former Elmwood Park Village President and trustee, member and president of the Elmwood Park Board of Education, Elmwood Park Zoning Board, Elmwood Park Civic Foundation, Norwood Park Senior Home Board of Directors, past chairman of the St. Vincent Ferrer Religious Education Advisory Board, and past president of the West Central Municipal Conference and Leyden Norwood Park Municipal League, former member Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency
His occupation: Cook County Commissioner, Attorney
His education: B.A., DePaul University, J.D., DePaul University
Campaign website: petersilvestri.com
The Cook County Health and Hospitals System lost out on some $165 million in revenue over three years because of lax clerical procedures and errors, according to report last spring by the county inspector general. What would you do to end this kind of waste?
Silvestri: When I read the Inspector General’s report, I wrote a resolution calling for a public hearing to explore in more depth and in a public forum how these errors occurred and to discuss how the problems can be fixed and avoided in the future. While I don’t want this report to overshadow the accomplishments of the hospital, which has a unique and significant mission, and which has made great strides in both professionalizing the institution and in adjusting to a rapidly changing health-care environment, we have to answer to the people.
Some have called for selling the hospital’s debt. The hospital is skeptical of this, believing that many of the county’s patients simply don’t fill out the necessary forms that could save them from medical bills. But the IG report shows that much of what’s being written off as bad debt includes expenses associated with care provided to insured patients. Before we look at selling our debt we should focus our efforts on quality control, training our existing staff, and hiring qualified people. There’s no reason we should be denied payments because of improper or inaccurate scheduling, coding, and documentation. These are not insurmountable problems. We need to hold people accountable and enforce our existing performance standards. To hear that some of the problems resulted from unmotivated workers is appalling and unacceptable. The solution is get motivated or get a different job—not with Cook County.
What should the County Board’s role be in assisting economically depressed areas in the south suburbs? Should the county sheriff take over policing responsibilities in more suburbs that are struggling to maintain police protection?
Silvestri: The county needs to create an environment that is business friendly by using incentives with guarantees and providing zoning relief to create an even playing field with neighboring counties. We should expand some of the successful programs we have underway, such as with brownfield redevelopment and small business loans. Community Development Block Grants continue to fund the South Suburban Initiative and I will continue to support them.
As chairman of the Building and Zoning Committee I have worked with the Building and Zoning Department to help the unincorporated areas—many in the south suburban area—improve their building and zoning requirements so that they are following best practices. I sponsored resolutions updating the building code and requesting a report on economic development initiatives in unincorporated cook county, specifically related to suburban and unincorporated areas.
The assumption is that the neighboring municipalities want the unincorporated areas; they generally do not. I support the voluntary merger of unincorporated areas into adjoining municipalities. The effective use of incentives to make such mergers attractive to the residents of both communities would accomplish this goal. I have always encouraged such mergers through the use of funds necessary to upgrade unincorporated area infrastructure and economic development. Zoning and development relief consistent with local municipal goals are part of these incentives.
The Sheriff has been willing to take on some of the policing responsibilities in the struggling suburbs, but this is a temporary solution that is helping to fill a void. Economic initiatives, such as grants, in addition to stronger municipal leadership, can help these communities function more independently.
As a commissioner, how strongly would you support efforts to ensure that voting within the county is secure?
Silvestri: I would strongly support any effort that ensures voting security. One would hope that the federal government would assist in this area as it is a nationwide problem, but if that is not forthcoming we need to do all that we can at the county level to ensure the most precious tenet of our democracy, which is free and true elections.
What should the County Board do to help reduce gun violence?
Silvestri: It is a fact, not an excuse, for me to say that gun laws need to be addressed at the federal level. Cook County’s proximity to Indiana makes that obvious. That said, we have to take any small steps we can think of to stop the gun-related bloodshed. The assault weapons ban, the Gun Violence Task Force, an ordinance requiring suburban firearm owners to report lost, stolen, or sold guns, the new positions in the Sheriff’s Office that analyze how social media fuels gun violence (I co-sponsored the resolution creating a Social Media Gang Task Force)—avenues such as these we need to continue to pursue. As chairman of the litigation subcommittee I’ve seen heartbreaking cases where child-lock requirements would have prevented tragedy. Universal background checks, preventing straw purchases, state licensing of gun shops to prevent “bad apple” dealers, banning bump stocks—these are some of the things I and a majority of people support and have to pursue at all levels. In many cases we need to stand together to urge the state to take action.
What ordinances would you propose and make a priority?
Silvestri: I look forward to working with the new assessor’s office to restore confidence in the tax assessment system. I’m advocating for changes both to the way properties are assessed and the way appeals are carried out. The assessment system has been proven to be unfair and particularly harmful to low-income communities. The county commissioned a study and has a blueprint of how to assess more fairly, it just wasn’t implemented. There are better models we can draw from in implementing a new assessment system. The keys are that it be fair and transparent.
I have also been working to correct the ways the “Mom and Pop” tax classification was being manipulated. That ordinance was put in place to protect Mom and Pop businesses, which were being assessed the same as large commercial properties. My resolution would protect Mom and Pop businesses while eliminating all loopholes.
I also sponsored a resolution creating an office of tax administration to combine functions now performed by several offices. While the previous State’s Attorney expressed concerns regarding the county’s home rule authority to accomplish this, at the very least we could do it via referendum.
We have combined a lot of the tax functions into one website, but the entire tax process is way more complicated than it needs to be and is begging for further streamlining. The timing is good, too, as the Clerk’s Office will soon be reinvented as it absorbs the Recorder of Deeds Office. The Clerk’s tax functions could then move to the administrator. That would just be the first step.
I also would like to focus on making improvements to our pension system. Pension reform is absolutely necessary, and we have to unfortunately rely on the state for that. The failure of pension reform in Springfield is one of the main reasons the Cook County sales tax was raised in 2016. It is not fair to the taxpayers to pay yet again for the state’s dysfunction. This year, the county board chose to make a supplemental pension payment of $353 million over and above our required contributions. While this is an admirable effort, it is not the long-term solution that real pension reform could be.
As a former member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), I have explored how other areas have accomplished consolidating overlapping and sometimes outdated taxing districts. Some states are providing grants and other incentives that proved effective in counties dissolving unnecessary services and consolidating others. Illinois, without providing funding, has made it legislatively possible for some counties to do the same, but Cook was excluded from the list. Cook County has four mosquito abatement districts, 21 TB/sanitary districts, and 33 fire protection districts. I’d like to work with Springfield to allow Cook to do what it is allowing DuPage, Lake, McHenry counties to do.
Should Cook County create a Consensus Revenue Forecasting Commission to give the board independent analyses?
Silvestri: Yes, I support an independent commission to help the county budget more accurately.
Once-reliable sources of income, such as the cigarette tax, cannot be depended on going forward as people purchase cigarettes outside the county, and fewer people smoke (fortunately). Sources of revenue from the area of transportation are changing and will continue to change as more people, particularly in the city, depend less on cars and taxis and more on public transportation, bikes, and ride sharing. Online shopping and the corresponding closing of retail shops make it more difficult to predict sales and business tax revenues. We also learned from the sugar tax, which I opposed from the start, that our revenue projections were not accurate.
Another factor is that the major ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, consider long-range revenue forecasting to be a positive factor in the credit rating process. Economic experts have expressed willingness to work pro bono on such a commission.
I am willing to try utilizing an independent forecasting commission that would both help us better forecast our current sources of income and help us identify, evaluate, and forecast new revenue sources.
Does it make sense for the sheriff’s department to take over the Cook County forest preserve police? Does it make sense for Stroger Hospital to have its own police force? Please explain.
Silvestri: The Sheriff’s police are more highly paid than the forest preserve police so transferring policing duties from the forest preserve police will not save money. Neither is the skill set of both groups a one-to-one match. I am not opposed in theory to find better, more economical ways to police these areas. If, in the future, it can be shown to provide cost savings while doing a proper job, then I would revisit the issue. Very recent studies do not support the change. The Stroger Hospital police force has had its share of challenges so I am open to exploring any way to police there more effectively, professionally, and economically.
Within the forest preserve system, native plants areas in unmanaged land are deteriorating at a rate of about 3 percent per year because of weeds and invasive species. What should be done, if anything, to protect the forest preserve’s ecosystems?
Silvestri: I have been a strong supporter of the forest preserve district’s management and restoration goals to preserve and enhance biodiversity. Many of our prairies, woodlands, wetlands, etc., are globally rare, and these rare communities and endangered species must be given priority, which means funding. By the end of this year we estimate that 9,400 acres will be under restoration or active maintenance. The forest preserve district has developed a long-term study providing regional research of best practices in restoration. Our volunteer force is larger than ever, and we need to continue to actively recruit and draw from this valuable resource we have in our people.
This year was our most successful prescribed burn season, and we need to continue to employ this management tool. We need to continue our research partnerships with academic institutions, which include a large number of universities near and far, the Field Museum, our zoos, and the Botanic Garden, to name a few. Expanding our understanding of climate change on local plant and animal populations is critical, and we need to budget in ways that understand this priority.
Are county commissioners, who are mostly Democrats, independent enough of their party and the president?
Silvestri: I cannot speculate as to why commissioners of either party vote the way they do. Nor do I have any interest in guessing what is said behind closed doors between the president and the other commissioners. I can only speak for myself. I like to think—and if you ask around, I believe you could confirm—that I have productive working relationships with the president, the Democratic commissioners, and the Republican commissioners. I don’t vote in lockstep with either party.
While the president is effective articulating her side of an issue—and it is her job to be persistent—I have never felt undue pressure or retaliation for disagreeing. I have to approach each issue through the lens of my constituents and balance that with the leadership role they have bestowed upon me.
What can the county do to create synergies with the City of Chicago? Or is this unnecessary?
Silvestri: The county and city should create synergies. Collaboration and consolidation can save money and improve efficiencies. It also would have an immediate, practical benefit to residents who are often confused by the duplication of services and don’t know where to turn. My district includes the Northwest Side of the city as well as many suburban areas. When a constituent calls, my staff must first determine where the person lives because the answers for suburban Cook County residents are often different than what would be given to city residents. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in issues related to voting. If you look at the overlap in what the Chicago Board of Elections does and the Cook County Clerk does regarding elections, it is almost a one-hundred-percent overlap: voter registration, judge recruitment and training, polling place identification, mapping and management, etc.
There are certain areas of public health that are duplicated and could be consolidated, such as STD and HIV/AIDS services, immunizations, and services for women and children. Collaboration on infrastructure and capital construction projects could achieve economies of scale. We would contract separately but collaborate on the administrative work. Increased joint purchasing, MBE/WBE certification, revenue collection and enforcement, combining 311 and the county’s information, workforce development—these are just a few of the ideas that should be pursued, and some of the projected savings have already been identified by professionals, such as Accenture.
Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, the Sun-Times is teaming up weekly with the Better Government Association, in print and online, to fact-check the truthfulness of the candidates. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.