Stroger at heart of tax debate
Some say he has not kept promise to streamline
Friday, September 28, 2007
by Mickey Ciokajlo
The debate over Cook County's proposed sales tax increase -- and next week's expected vote on the plan -- hinges in part on the question of whether Board President Todd Stroger has overhauled a bloated bureaucracy enough to justify the increase.
Stroger's critics say no, he has done little to make the government run more efficiently and has continued the county tradition of adding friends and political supporters to the payroll instead of professionals.
He and his supporters on the County Board say yes, they have made much progress since Stroger was sworn into office in December.
"It's a new day in this county," said Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood). "We're doing things differently."
Murphy is the sponsor of the proposal to increase the sales tax from 0.75 percent to 2.75 percent, but Stroger came a step closer to taking ownership Thursday as he defended his record.
Stroger, who called a special board meeting for Monday to consider the tax increase, said it is the best option to close a projected $307 million shortfall. He said the money would be needed in the future, when projections show the county's financial picture will only get worse.
"We have looked at [the] numbers. We think they will do what we need them to do, and I am talking to commissioners and saying, 'I think that this number will do it, are you behind it?'" Stroger said.
The rookie president said he can justify the tax increase because he has begun to retool the government and has made strides toward improving the operation.
"I think if you looked at our record in the last nine months you'll find that we've made changes, we've reduced the work force by about 10 percent," Stroger said. "We've made changes to the Bureau of Health. ... And we've made an overall effort to keep the commissioners involved in the process."
But critics of the tax increase, such as Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), said the increase could be avoided if Stroger made the government more efficient by streamlining operations, consolidating departments and better utilizing technology.
"No one has made any effort to change the structure of this government," Quigley said. "And they bear the ultimate burden of the financial mess that we are in."
Quigley on Thursday noted Stroger's budget speech from January in which Stroger said his administration would "re-imagine" county government and transform a "sometimes sluggish culture" into a "modern and efficient operation."
Stroger said he would hold a budget summit of elected officials and experts, require county leaders to start from scratch in their budget requests every year and take other steps to attack government "bloat."
The summit never happened. Although the county has not moved to so-called "zero-based budgeting," Stroger said department heads and elected officials are being required to meet new performance standards in their spending plans to make them more accountable. The bloat question remains a matter of perspective.
Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), who led a news conference Thursday rallying opposition to the tax proposal, said the government contains unnecessary bureaucracy. He said a tax increase will take the pressure off efforts to force reform of the government.
"This is our chance," Claypool said. "The time is now. This is the battle."
Others say it is impossible to tell how much has changed under Stroger because he has not yet presented his budget proposal, which he plans to unveil sometime next month.
"There is no way to assess the validity of their claims of efficiency or performance measurement because they have not produced the requisite spending plan," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group. "To ask [commissioners] to raise taxes without that spending plan prevents any meaningful analysis as to whether the money is needed or how it may be spent."
For example, Stroger on Thursday said that his administration had laid off 10 percent of the work force already this year. But hard numbers on lay offs have been a moving target and an administration spokesman could not provide a figure late Thursday.
Quigley predicted the reform vs. revenue debate on Monday will be long and passionate, but unlikely to change many minds among the sharply divided, 17-member board.