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Cook County budget sees trims, to be specified later

Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Daily Herald
by ROB OLMSTEAD

After browbeating fellow elected officials for weeks to cut their budgets by 17 percent, President Todd Stroger delivered a budget that doesn't do so in all his departments, and where it does, doesn't specify how.
"It basically has a big asterisk that says 'to be continued,' " said Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool of Chicago.
In addition, the budget featured raises for several high-level bureaucrats and an increase in the number of bureaucratic positions while cutting front-line services.
For instance, Stroger announced he's closing 16 of 26 health clinics, but he doubled the number of positions in the general administration department of the clinics from four to eight - an increase in that department's budget from $308,256 to $612,142.
"I would expect that those (new administration jobs) would more than pay for themselves with the enhanced billings we'll be doing out at the clinics," said Tom Glaser, the county's chief financial officer.
Glaser was one of the many staffers Stroger called on to answer questions directed at him during a news conference after he released his budget.
Stroger boasted the general fund budget had been cut by $112.3 million, but more than $100 million of those cuts were labeled "target adjustment" with no specifics as to how they will be reached.
Commissioner Mike Quigley, who lauded the budget because it began to make cuts and did not call for a tax increase, conceded there needs to be more information.
"In the end, when the budget's approved, you have to be far more specific," Quigley said.
Staffers said Stroger and his new Bureau of Health chief, Bob Simon, have not yet been in office long enough to identify every last line item, but they promised they would come.
Stroger also announced Tuesday the appointment of a new health bureau chief financial officer, John Cookinham. Cookinham will be hired at $170,000 - an increase of $26,347 from the last person to hold that position, Alvin Holley.
Since Holley resigned under pressure in August, the county board took away many job responsibilities from the bureau of health, including purchasing and payable accounts. But Cookinham will be paid 18.3 percent more than the last CFO in part because he will be in charge of supervising a new contractor to improve the amount of money collected from patients at the hospital, Stroger's staff said.
That contract is expected to eliminate an existing deficit and bring in an additional $43 million in revenue, Stroger's office said.
Stroger also announced his budget will consolidate public relations, human resources, and finance functions at the three county hospitals - a move called for by commissioners years ago but never enacted by former board President John Stroger, Todd Stroger's father.
But when examined, the budget held no such reductions. Spokesman Steve Mayberry said those consolidations have in fact begun, with some staffers already laid off and others receiving their two-week notices, but it was not yet reflected in the budget.
Elsewhere, Stroger boasted the new budget reflects an addition of 250 new jail guards, as called for by a federal judge's order.
But the budget reflected the addition of only roughly 175 guards. Mayberry could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening when the discrepancy was discovered.
Where other cuts will come was hard to determine since they haven't yet been specified. But already, the state's attorney's office estimated it would be eliminating or not filling 10 percent of its state's attorney's jobs in the felony prosecutions division.
Not everyone was sour on the budget.
The Civic Federation endorsed it, saying it began the first crucial step of putting in writing the amounts that need to be reduced, even if it didn't specify how it would be done.
"By producing a budget that is based on the available revenue, the process will force the prioritization," said Laurence Msall, president of the organization.
In all, administrators said the budget was the best way to deal with a projected deficit of $500 million for 2007 that would have occurred if the budget were allowed to grow unchecked.
Walter Knorr, the county comptroller, identified the $500 million deficit, and its resultant cures, as follows.
Of that $500 million, $143 million was growth the budget would have experienced in salaries and benefits if it had gone unchecked.
Another $112 million was reduced through cuts, and another $150 million was trimmed by refinancing debt.
A roughly $45 million deficit in the bureau of health is expected to be eliminated through restructuring and better collection, along with an additional $43 million in payment collections.
In all, the total county budget fell to $3.012 billion from $3.08 billion - a reduction of $68 million.
Stroger estimated about 1,500 positions were eliminated.


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