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Budgets, belt tightening for Cook County.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Kimberley Mathisen

Cook County residents should prepare to tighten their belts and loosen their wallets.
In a Monday address, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said the ongoing struggle of trying to balance a bloated county budget likely will result in more outsourcing, more streamlining of services and, of course, possible tax hikes.

Proposals for the half billion-dollar budget include the possibility of taxing utilities as well as implementing a county income tax, both of which are likely to be debated, he said at the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce Regional Consensus Luncheon.

"The proposal is on the table and will go to the finance commission," Stroger said. "A county income tax would get rid of property taxes but has to be workable.

"The commissioners must look at the proposals. Because of the Illinois Constitution, we can't do too much without going through the state."

A lack of money has led to the altering and streamlining of several offices and programs, Stroger said at the Holiday Inn Select & Convention Center in Tinley Park.

"When I took over last December, we immediately went to work on a $502 million deficit," he said. "That was the largest deficit in Cook County history."

Stroger - who took control of the county board leadership when his father, John, suffered a stroke - recently battled prostate cancer.

When the budget sessions begin, Stroger said his focus will be modernizing and reforming the way Cook County does business.

"Change isn't easy, but it's important to progress (forward)," he said.

Addressing critics of the county's hiring practices, Stroger said the Shakman decree - which prohibits patronage hiring - precludes his office from such tactics.

According to Stroger, an entity as large as Cook County needs managers to ensure work is being done.

He noted that "Cook County is the second-largest county in the United States."

Stroger also fired a shot at the media, complaining that some newspapers reported on the 100 employees who said they were treated unfairly with regard to jobs.

"That's 1 percent of the county employees," he said. "We have 10,000 people and a $37 million payroll."

During his relatively short tenure in the president's chair, key issues have been addressed and progress has been made, Stroger said.

Redesigning the purchasing Web site, legislation improvements and campaign disclosures are a few of the areas in which changes at the county level have occurred, he added.

Stroger said there have been a good deal of changes including liberalizing the tax liabilities for commercial and abandoned properties throughout the county and in the Southland.

He added that he also is planning to tackle redevelopments to the tax delinquency program.

"Affordable housing programs are needed urgently," Stroger said.

One of Stroger's pet projects is the President's Office of Employment Training program, which is under the direction of Karen Crawford, who attended the luncheon.

"POET works with Cook County government on renewed work force development," he said.
"There are too few trained workers in many of our county industries, and this program will help
develop a stronger partnership within the business community."

Asking for volunteers to help with POET, Stroger praised the skills of Crawford, a former schoolmate.

"Together we can build a reconfigured Southland."

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