By Erick Johnson
Poor Dorothy Brown.
She heads the second largest county court system in the country. Yet, the Clerk for the Circuit Court of Cook County makes less than a security specialist, a grant coordinator, a research analyst, top administrative assistants and other employees working in the public sector.
While Brown went years without a pay increase, many employees received sweet raises making them some of the highest-paid individuals on Cook County’s $1.6 billion payroll budget, according to an investigation by the Chicago Crusader.
Cook County’s top brass say they are weathering tough times, but many employees are taking home fat paychecks that are getting even bigger, while Brown’s have stayed the same.
The revelations surfaced after Brown’s request for a raise was rejected by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who’s defending her image after three county commissioners failed to turn Brown’s position into an appointed one.
Despite coming out on top, Brown remains at the bottom when it comes to fair compensation for a job that carries immense responsibilities in a massive department.
For 15 years, Brown has served as the Clerk for the Circuit Court of Cook County. In the March primary, voters overwhelmingly propelled her to victory despite a withdrawn endorsement from the Cook County Democrats. Brown once again proved to be unsinkable in spite of a federal investigation into a building she and her husband sold in North Lawndale.
As an elected official, Brown continues to draw strong support from Chicago voters, especially those in the Black community. As the Clerk of the Circuit Court, she has implemented an electronic case filing system that allows individuals to file cases online. Under her leadership, users can also look up traffic tickets, foreclosures and child support payments.
In the Black community, Brown has helped educate individuals about getting unfair misdemeanors expunged from their records.
The Cook County Court system is huge with over 400 judges. They preside over cases such as traffic violations, foreclosures and evictions. In 2014, some 2.4 million cases were filed in Illinois’ largest court system. Cook County’s population is 5.2 million, according to the latest figures by the U.S. Census Bureau.
With nearly 1,700 employees, Brown’s department is the third largest in Cook County government, behind the Sheriff’s division (772 employees) and the Office of the Chief Judge (172 employees).
Despite her enormous workload, responsibilities and years of experience, Brown makes $105,000 a year. For 15 years, she has never received a raise in salary. It’s been this way since John H. Stroger was Cook County Board President.
Meanwhile, through information provided by Cook County’s data portal, the Crusader has learned that higher paid government employees with similar or less workloads have benefitted from three to four percent raises, while Brown—an attorney and certified public accountant—received nothing.
Employees such as Sandra Lewis, a video coordinator transfer specialist in the State’s Attorney’s Office made $114,520.64 in 2015. That same year, Steven J. Hensley pulled in $112,260. In 2014, both Lewis and Hensley were earning $107,425.76.
Two high-level administrative assistants with Cook County Board of Review—Raymond Schofield and Thomas M. Sullivan—each make nearly $119,781. In 2014, they both made $114,622.56, based on county data.
In 2014, Freddie Shufford made nearly $113,000 as a grant coordinator with the Cook County Board of Health Service Core Center, a publicly-funded clinic that treats and help prevent HIV/AIDS. The next year, his salary jumped to $118,000. Then there is Thomas G. Chmura, a senior research analyst, who is living off a $115,525 salary. Two years ago, he made $110,481.
County commissioners make $85,000 a year. Although they are not elected officials, the employees’ bloated salaries indicate that Cook County has some dough stashed away that can be used to award raises. However, the numbers also question whether these salaries and raises are justified in compensating county employees or officials whose questionable duties and title fit the price of a fat paycheck.
Despite county officials’ claims of budget woes, their overall budget payroll for 2015 was $1.6 billion—some $40 million higher than payroll in 2014.
Still, Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for Preckwinkle, said in a statement that “These are very difficult times for Cook County and all local governments, and not the appropriate time to discuss raises for elected officials.”
Shuftan was referring to Brown. On May 3, Brown asked Preckwinkle to introduce an ordinance that would have increased her $105,000 salary. She argued that her counterparts in DuPage and Lake County earned about $165,000 and $122,000, respectively, despite lower caseloads and employee counts.
In spite of the numbers, Preckwinkle, who makes $170,000 a year, rejected Brown’s request for a raise and hasn’t held back on expressing her opposition to the issue. Shuftan said Brown’s salary is the same as the County Treasurer, County Clerk and the county Recorder of Deeds.
Brown believes these positions are not comparable because her department’s size and responsibilities are much bigger. With nearly 1,700 employees, Brown’s department dwarfs the County Clerk’s office (275 employees) and the Cook County Treasurer’s office, which has just 89 employees.
Preckwinkle handpicked 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris to run against Brown in the primary. Brown whipped Harris, taking 48 percent of the vote.
Last week, Brown prevailed again after County commissioners dropped a proposal that would have made the Clerk’s position an appointed one. Some believed Preckwinkle had a role in the proposal, but in a letter to the Crusader, Preckwinkle denied any involvement in the attempt to turn the Clerk’s job into an appointed position. She did however, admit to opposing Brown’s request for a raise.
“I make no apologies for opposing pay hikes for elected officials in this difficult fiscal environment. Cook County is struggling to make ends meet. With about two-thirds of our budget dedicated to public health and public safety, we must carefully focus any available resources where they have the most beneficial impact on critical programs and services.”