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Clerk seeks panel to eye Cook budget
Taking a cue from citizen review boards elsewhere

Monday, January 31, 2005
Crain's Chicago Business
by Shruti Daté Singh

Can ordinary citizens find ways to trim Cook County's budget?

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thinks so. She's floating the idea of a citizens' review panel to seek ways to economize.

Ms. Brown hasn't shopped her idea around much. But certain powers-that-be aren't fond of it, most notably County Board President John Stroger Jr., who says: "You can't have all the citizens and customers telling you how to manage day-to-day fiscal operations."

Ms. Brown's idea isn't new. Independent review panels have been created to open the books in counties and cities nationwide.

The city of San Antonio and Bexar County in Texas set up a 23-member panel in 2003 to identify ways to eliminate duplication in operations. Officials now are implementing 22 of 25 recommendations, including creating a single housing authority and combining social services.

"It wasn't easy," says Glen Hartman, a former San Antonio city councilman who served as commission chairman. "There is a tendency for bureaucracy to grow."

A citizens' panel in Spokane County, Wash., decides whether elected officials receive pay raises. "(The citizens) are my bosses. If they want to give me a pay raise, I am grateful," says Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris.

Ms. Brown got her idea from Maricopa County, Ariz., which created a citizens' panel to study the need for a new jail. With the help of panel research, the county in 1998 won voter approval for a $900-million sales tax increase to finance a jail.

Ms. Brown says she wants a panel to find long-term solutions to Cook County's budget problems. County President Stroger proposed a $3.04-billion 2005 budget, with a $73-million shortfall. "We cannot operate like this year after year," she says. "We go into crisis mode every year."

The proposed panel would include up to 21 volunteers. It would sit for up to two years and cost a maximum of $500,000, most of which would go toward support staff.

Laurence Msall, president of tax policy group the Civic Federation, says he agrees with the spirit of the plan. "The public doesn't have easy access to information," he says. "What we need is for county government to be more transparent."


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