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Jackson calls for meeting at 'common table' to solve county budget crisis

Thursday, January 25, 2007
Chicago Defender
by Mema Ayi, Chicago Defender

With angry county workers demanding Cook County Board President Todd Stroger retreat on calls for massive cuts in order to solve a $500 million budget gap, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. on Wednesday called for interested parties to come together to find a resolution.
Jackson and more than a dozen ministers from all over the county were joined by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger at a news conference at Rainbow/PUSH headquarters to explain the reasons for massive cuts to county health services.
Stroger presented a proposed $3 billion budget last week that called for 17 percent cuts to all departments, which would eliminate several programs and services and cut at least 2,000 employees. Stroger has until Feb. 28 to pass the budget. The county board hopes to close a $500 million budget gap.
Jackson said solving the budget crisis will mean all parties involved - from elected federal officials to union negotiators - will have to work together.
"We will not rest until we get a resolution. Our concern as ministers is that we cannot just make this a Cook County issue or a Todd Stroger issue," Jackson said.
But Stroger is as responsible as every other party for maintaining services to Cook County residents, said Jackson, who also vowed to continue demonstrations against cuts to programs and services until the budget crisis is resolved.
"This is not about finger pointing. We are making an appeal to the state as well," Jackson said. "We must all share responsibility. When we do that, the burden is easier for all of us to bear."
Dr. Robert Simon, interim chief of the county's Bureau of Health Services, said the budget shortfall could be fixed if the state released approximately $250 million in federal Medicaid funds.
States annually administer the funds to public hospitals, and Cook County has the only public hospital system in the state. Currently, the state distributes 35 percent of the funding to Cook County, Simon said. Without that funding, it will take drastic cuts to balance the budget, he added.
"The problem is that we have to live within our means. This is the best we can do right now," Simon said.
Jackson called the formula that allows the state to keep 65 percent of monies irrational.
"President Stroger is cutting based on a state formula that does not make sense," Jackson said.
Stroger accused the state of holding out.
"We service too many people. We need the money. The money from the state will help make us whole," Stroger said. "The reality is that all the money is supposed to go to us."
State Senator James Meeks (D-15th) said he will find out why more of the Medicaid funding has not been distributed to the county's health care system.
"If the state is holding this money and if it's not legal and lawful and right, the state should step in immediately to make it right," Meeks said.
Jackson said U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, Illinois congressmen, state officials, the unions that represent county employees and Stroger's office all have a role to play in resolving the economic crisis.
Seventeen percent cuts across the board could devastate some communities in Cook County and equates to protracted genocide, Jackson said.
"Some people may be denied health care. Some people will die. And we will see the erosion of the criminal justice system," Jackson said.
Jackson said the county's three hospitals and clinics serve the indigent and the working poor - 83 percent of the county's patients are employed.

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