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DuPage County Board candidates counting pennies to attract voters
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff

James Zay


Tony Michelassi


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Published: 10/26/2008 12:03 AM

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Nearly a year ago, DuPage County was facing an epic revenue shortfall that could have resulted in the loss of hundreds of public safety jobs.

But a state-approved sales tax increase added upward of $48 million to the county's coffers. The money was earmarked for public safety salaries and transportation issues. So now, county board candidates are counting pennies in an effort to appeal to voters ahead of the Nov. 4 election.

Challengers are attacking county board members' salaries, and some are suspicious of the pay hikes proposed for sheriff's deputies and assistant prosecutors. Incumbents argue they are holding the line on their own salaries - and some are even taking pay cuts - while defending pay raises for public safety workers.

Board members have said Sheriff John Zaruba is seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of an across-the-board 16 percent raise for deputies, and State's Attorney Joseph Birkett would like to boost salaries for assistant prosecutors by 11 percent next year.

District 6 Democratic challenger Dirk Enger accused the board of sitting idly by as experienced employees left for better paying jobs elsewhere.

"Because of the lack of the board's actions we have lost people," he said. "You can't replace that experience. I'd support a cost of living increase, but I think we should also invest in technology in those departments."

Republican incumbents say the raises for deputies and assistant prosecutors should be comparable to other positions in neighboring counties to stem the tide of departures.

"The problem Sheriff Zaruba has is very real with recruiting and starting salaries being significantly lower than other counties," said District 2 Republican incumbent Brien Sheahan. "We're just not paying our professionals enough."

Starting pay for prosecutors is $48,784; deputies' pay scale begins at $41,700.

District 4 Republican incumbent Debra Olson believes increased pay will help fill vacancies and cut down on overtime costs. Her counterpart in District 4, Grant Eckhoff, wants to see studies of pay scales in other counties before signing off on raises. District 1 incumbent Paul Fichtner said the employees in the public safety posts that have stayed with the county through leaner budgets deserve the raise.

District 6 Republican candidate Robert Larsen would like some assurances that training costs not go to waste if new hires move on after just a few years on the job.

Green Party challenger William Edgar of District 4 approves of pay hikes for deputies, but is against the request in Birkett's office.

District 5 Republican candidate Gerry Cassioppi said he has researched the issue and was surprised by his findings.

"I was a little disturbed when I saw that starting salaries for prosecutors and deputies are less than what county board members are getting, and I think that's wrong," he said. "We should figure out a way to bring down salaries on the county board."

Democratic candidates Dan Bailey and Richard Dunn, both running in District 4, say the board needs to take a pay cut in an effort to lead by example. Most board members' salaries are a little more than $50,000 a year and include health benefits and a pension.

"We should take cuts in our own salaries, like something down to $30,000 a year and then go to the department heads to show them what we're doing and ask what they can do," Dunn said.

District 6 Republican incumbent James Zay said only in election years do you hear people griping about board members' salaries.

"People who think this is a regular 9-to-5 job are mistaken," he said. "There are weeks when we may take 20 hours to do our job and there are weeks when it takes 60. If you want good people to come out and run for office, you give them a salary that is in whack with everyone else."

But District 5 Democratic challenger Tony Michelassi argues that board salaries are out of whack compared to other collar county boards.

"The Republicans will argue about pay increases being sought in Springfield and in Cook County, and I don't agree with that either, but I'm not running for state office or in Cook County, I'm in DuPage," he said. "I would cut salaries by about 40 percent and I'd be willing to take a massive pay cut the first day on the job."

Republican incumbents Yolanda Campuzano from District 1 and Patrick O'Shea from District 2 both said board salaries are fair at their current level.

"The salary I get I'm happy with and if they cut it, it doesn't justify the travel and time I put in," Campuzano said.

The board recently voted to cut mileage and committee chairmanship stipends, but District 5 Republican incumbent James Healy suggested lowering the base salary of the entire board and resurrecting committee leadership stipends.

The unique salary proposal came from District 1 Democratic challenger Rifat Sivisoglu who suggested the board form a committee to determine pay for board members based on performance.

"I'm most interested in performance and tying the pay to that, possibly paying more for jobs brought to the county," he said. "And maybe not paying as much if board members are missing votes."