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County treasurer trims budget again
Spending plan cut for 2nd straight year

Monday, November 14, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

For the second straight year, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas is proposing to reduce her budget by nearly 6 percent, mainly by cutting 22 workers who were let go 10 days ago.

County Board President John Stroger has yet to release the entire 2006 county budget, but he has warned of a $250 million shortfall and the possibility of increasing taxes to close it.

Pappas said the budget her office sent to Stroger's finance team is $10.8 million, 5.9 percent less than the 2005 appropriation. It contains 29 fewer jobs, seven of which were vacant positions that were eliminated.

Since she took office in 1998, Pappas has cut 104 positions from her budget, mainly by automating the office through the use of the Internet and telephones, and by allowing tax bills to be paid at banks.

"She should be commended for stepping up and reducing her budget," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government watchdog group. "It shows that investments in technology and better business practices can really help reduce operating costs."

Stroger said Pappas advised him of the cuts she has made in her budget.

"I congratulated her and said that if we had more people doing that the county would be better off," Stroger said.

Stroger has asked department heads and elected officials to hold the line on spending--an almost annual request that is rarely followed, although last year the board imposed cuts to avoid a tax increase.

"This year we knew the only way to meet the request ... was to reduce bodies," said Pappas, a former county commissioner. "I don't want to be on the side of increasing the tax levy."

Pappas said that when she came into office seven years ago more than 20 people were assigned to take taxpayers' questions over the telephone. Now, eight people handle that task, thanks to an automated system that provides answers to basic questions.

This year, 81,000 tax payments were made through her office's Web site. More significantly, nearly 750,000 payments were made at bank branches, including Chase outlets in Dominick's grocery stores.

Over the years Pappas has closed her five satellite offices, including the final two, in Rolling Meadows and Markham, earlier this month.

While the changes have been significant within the treasurer's office, because it is one of the county's smallest, it accounts for just a small fraction of the $3 billion budget.

Collecting payments also lends itself to automation more so than other county operations, such as the jail or hospitals. But Pappas said the other elected officials still could learn from her example.

"It's a very difficult time," said Pappas, who plans to seek a third term next year but so far has no vocal opposition. "Everybody's going to have to step up to the plate here."

John Daley, chairman of the County Board's Finance Committee, said Pappas' budget cuts and innovations are "a good model."

"She's a good example of what people can do if they have the will and determination," Daley said.



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