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Open-minded Stroger, board can save us from tax hike

Thursday, January 27, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

John Stroger has a tough job. The Cook County Board president has to fund the operations of the county jail and the county hospital, but has little control over their spending. Police, prosecutors and judges fill the jail. The poor and uninsured turn to the hospital for health services large and small. Stroger gets to pay the bill. Still, it's hard to swallow the hefty tax increases he proposes in the Cook County budget, including one to increase your cost of dining out.

Another handicap Stroger faces is that his budget is presented after Mayor Daley has passed his spending plan through the City Council. In a year like this one, when Daley pushed through $85 million in tax and fee increases, Stroger's requests for more taxes seems to taxpayers like piling on.

A further issue is that Stroger, unlike Daley, has a vocal bloc of board members who never hesitate to challenge his policies and actions, including this year's tax increase proposals. That, of course, is a good thing, and it would be beneficial to Chicagoans if an outspoken group of City Council members could be motivated to stand up to the mayor on a regular basis.

But Stroger's biggest problem is the widely held belief that county government is bloated, patronage-driven, inefficient, spendthrift and lacking sufficient sensitivity to the taxpayers' pocketbooks. Unfortunately for Stroger, there's plenty of evidence to back that belief. Each of the four hospitals in the county health system has its own public relations and human resources department, prompting Commissioner Forrest Claypool to wonder "Why does each hospital need its own bureaucratic empire?"

Stroger's claim to holding down employee costs runs afoul of facts. Nonunion county employees get yearly "step" pay increases on top of regular cost-of-living increases, adding up to a 7.5 percent pay boost that's the envy of most taxpayers. A Tribune report found that the county managed to hire 2,700 people during an 18-month hiring freeze. Stroger added three new aides. County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore put his son on the payroll. Sheriff Michael Sheahan hired an alderman kicked out of office by the voters.

Is it any wonder there's a revolt against Stroger's proposal to increase the restaurant and hotel taxes by 2 percentage points? He says increases are needed to close a $73 million deficit in the $3 billion budget. But his proposals would make hotel and restaurant taxes in Chicago much higher than those of Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., our chief competitors for the lucrative convention business. And a Stroger aide's comment that anyone who can afford to eat out can afford a tax jump adds insult to injury.

It doesn't look like Stroger has the votes to pass his tax increases. What's needed is a cooperative effort by him and the board to pare the budget. Stroger's office complains that key members of the opposition commissioners such as Claypool haven't even met with him about the budget. That only fuels the kind of suspicions given voice by Stroger this week that the African-American head of county government gets flak over tax increases, while the white mayor and white governor get a pass. Race isn't driving this budget impasse, but having it injected into the debate shows how divisive and emotional the atmosphere at the board is.

A Stroger open to ideas other than a tax raise and commissioners willing to work with him should be able to find ways to trim the budget. An across-the-board cut is preferable to tax increases. Good ideas can be found in proposals for reinventing county government advanced by Commissioner Michael Quigley in 2003. One is right on point. It echoes Stroger's suggestion that Sheahan transfer sheriff's officers patrolling unincorporated areas of the county to the jail to meet its staffing needs. The county could contract with nearby communities to police those areas.

But tough choices on budget cutting should not be limited to Stroger. Daley was quoted as saying as bad as this year's city fiscal situation was, just wait till next year. Well, a year gives him plenty of time to come up with solutions other than more tax and fee jolts for scandal-weary Chicago. Gov. Blagojevich has kept his pledge not to raise income or sales taxes but has imposed fee increases on many business dealings. These costs get passed on to consumers, or the state suffers as businesses look to find ways to move operations to other states. Blagojevich can no longer avoid the issue of gaming expansion and a casino in Chicago, which could generate much needed revenues for state and local governments, including the county.

As Stroger, Daley and Blagojevich cope with the admittedly complex task of writing budgets, they should keep one goal in mind: Chicago cannot become branded as a city burdened with high taxes.

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