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Civic Fed. On Cook Co. Budget: "Extraordinary And Irresponsible"

Friday, December 19, 2008
Progress Illinois
by Angela Caputo

The Civic Federation came out with its latest review of Cook County’s finances today. Not surprisingly, the watchdog group is ripping Board President Todd Stroger and his allies on the board for their “stunning failure of fiscal responsibility.” Laurence Msall, who heads up the Federation, was nothing short of disdainful in his analysis of Stroger’s plan to sell $740 million worth of bonds this year to balance the $2.9 billion 2009 budget. From the report (PDF):

Cook County President Todd Stroger argues that the borrowing is essential because the massive one percentage point sales tax increase approved last year will not generate sufficient revenues to pay for the County’s spending plan … The failure of this government to consider the long-term implications of its fiscal actions is extraordinary and irresponsible.

At current interest rates, the Civic Federation estimates taxpayers could end up paying nearly three times the bond value in interest alone.  To make matters worse, Commissioner Larry Suffredin tells us that the county doesn’t need the extra money. To give one example, he contends that the budget should factor in an additional $100 million in sales tax revenue.

“This is a contrived financial accounting technique to make a case for the bonds,” Suffredin tells us. “They’ve created a political document rather than an accounting document.”

This year’s budgeting process has only cemented the county’s image as a mockery of good government. Emblematic of the problem, the Stroger administration passed around a third set of budget books in an effort to get the numbers right.

The Federation also criticized the lack of transparency regarding the budget for the county's Health and Hospital System:

First, the fact that the passage of the FY2009 budget was not on the Board’s agenda was problematic. During the Board’s October 3, 2008 meeting the System’s budget was approved, yet this action was not reflected on that day’s agenda.

Second, an insufficient number of copies of the budget document were produced for public distribution. Despite repeated requests the Federation was unable to receive a copy of the budget document.

As county officials consider taking on millions worth of new debt, outsourcing or cutting jobs, and realigning services, the “real numbers” need to come out so that commissioners can make smart decisions. “Otherwise,” says Suffredin, “it’s very difficult to do public policy and analysis.”

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