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Cook County's year of reckoning

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Chicago Tribune

On Tuesday members of the Cook County Board will decide whether to raise property taxes for the county's Forest Preserve District. Once they've settled on a budget for the forest preserves, they'll go back to wrestling with a bigger problem: the proposed $3 billion budget for the rest of county government.

Both budgets have similar problems: Too much patronage and woeful inefficiency.

On Monday board members listened to one sob story after another from county officials who typically said they could live with a 1 percent cut to their proposed budgets, but not a 2 percent cut. Which eventually provoked one board member, Michael Quigley, to mock their whiny message as, "We can't be 1 percent more efficient."

The mere notion of asking county officials to help prevent tax hikes pains some board members. One of them, Deborah Sims, evidently exhausted herself lobbing softballs to county officials who think a 1 percent cut is enough. Sims appeared to agree. "I guess what I'm trying to do," she said at one point, "is make your case."

Not your job, Ms. Sims. But then, it's always been easier for several board members to vote for higher and higher and higher taxes, rather than to demand that spending be cut.

This year, though, the tax hikes that County Board President John Stroger proposes to balance his bloated budget are as good as dead, as Finance Chairman John Daley acknowledged Monday. In part that's because, as the Tribune reported last month, the supposedly hard-pressed county added 2,700 workers during a Stroger-imposed "hiring freeze."

Maybe it has occurred to board members inclined to support new taxes that, with the hiring freeze exposed as a sham, county government's credibility approaches zero. Maybe it's occurred to them that they're all up for re-election next year. Maybe it's even occurred to them that voters have had enough of Cook County's waste.

So, if tax hikes are off the table, the board has to cut costs. That means dumping some of the relatives and friends and ward heelers who have always been protected by board members.

So odious is that prospect that some members are mulling a third option: inflating their budget staff's revenue projections. That would mean balancing the budget on funny, phony numbers.

In sum, several incumbent board members have enough to explain to exasperated voters, without having to explain still more votes for higher taxes, or faith in make-believe revenues.

This is a problem that didn't have to be. If, over the last five years, board members had demanded that county government streamline, consolidate and otherwise cut costs--instead of hiding from the many reform proposals that have been floated--Cook County today would have a budget taxpayers could afford. Instead, overhead is swelling at a rate taxpayers can't sustain.

The rope-a-dope strategy of denial may not work in this, Cook County's year of reckoning. Board members have got to cut spending now.

First up is Tuesday's vote on higher property taxes for the Forest Preserve District. County Board members, do your jobs.

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