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Reinventing Cook County

Sunday, July 02, 2006
Chicago Tribune

John Stroger's resignation Friday as president of the Cook County Board sets one--and possibly two--things in motion. The first is a given; the other, at this point, is only a wish.

Given: Stroger's decision will intensify the scheming among Democrats over who'll replace him on the November ballot--the better to control county jobs by the thousands.

Wish: A successor will make some dramatic changes at the sagging county government.

That duty falls to whichever county commissioner--possibly John Daley--is chosen by the board to serve out Stroger's term. The interim president needs to be a change agent, not a caretaker. He or she inherits a 2006 budget shortfall that threatens to reach about $80 million.

Here's a doable action plan:

- The county's finance team, headed by Thomas Glaser, is as superb at managing money as the board is at misappropriating it. Immediately give Glaser authority over the runaway health and hospital system that may waste as much on do-little payrollers as it spends actually treating patients. This, against stiff competition, is the most sloppily run part of county government.

- Order every elected official and department head to an urgent meeting to enumerate what costs he or she will slash right now to offset the shortfall. Yes, that means freezing all hiring and cutting jobs and services. The chief alternatives--borrowing money or spending next year's money this year--only worsen the inevitable cuts. Failure to reduce the bloated county payroll of 26,000 got us to where we are.

- Five months isn't enough time to streamline the 19th Century structure of county government, but it's plenty of time to set that in motion. That means creating transition teams to prepare legislation that will combine redundant offices, dump obsolete activities and introduce efficiencies. Excellent suggestions on how to do this have been piling up for years in documents such as the "Reinventing Cook County" reports authored by Commissioner Michael Quigley. Another gem: a report chock-full of economies that a Glaser-led County Operations Review Team delivered to Stroger. (And that was that.)

- Show some spine. Not every decision needs to go to a committee. Well more than a year ago, the County Board ordered the consolidation of back-office functions in county hospitals--public relations, human resources and so forth. Thus far, no consolidation. Out here in the real world, a big boss would have told the slow-poke bureaucrats long ago: "You have two weeks to combine those offices. In week three, they're consolidated or you're gone." Yes, commissioners, that can be done. What's your problem?

Back on Sept. 5, 2002, a contrite John Daley admitted that the County Board had known for years about a pent-up financial disaster in the county's Forest Preserve District. "And we haven't done jack," Daley fumed, as chastened board members around him fell silent.

Those were hard words for Daley to utter. Here's hoping he won't have to do so again.



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