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Fingers crossed on Cook budget
Tentative deal relies on new federal money not yet guaranteed

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

By banking on new federal money that's not yet guaranteed and making relatively minor cuts, the Cook County Board reached a tentative 2009 budget deal Tuesday—without $220 million in borrowing initially sought by board President Todd Stroger.

The compromise, $2.9 billion spending plan was reached during an eight-hour meeting of the Finance Committee, which includes all 17 county commissioners, setting the stage for its likely approval at a special board meeting next week.

But commissioners must still find a way to pay $104 million in unfunded pension obligations and raise about $260 million, most likely through borrowing, for construction projects and technology upgrades.

The tentative agreement was forged from a series of compromises among Republicans, regular Democrats and self-styled reform Democrats. It came after the committee balked at Stroger's plan for a massive bond deal to cover some of the county's day-to-day operations, which critics blasted as outrageous on the heels of his successful push for a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax last year.

Instead, commissioners cut nearly $37 million by making across-the-board cuts in most departments under Stroger, as well as for offices including sheriff and state's attorney. They also boosted by $47 million the amount of health-care payments they are expecting from the federal government, even though the state and federal agreements to provide that extra funding are not yet final.

"I am satisfied with the way the budget ended," Stroger said after the committee finished. "They made some small cuts that I think the departments can withstand, but I do think that they are on dangerous ground when they expect a lot from the federal government before we actually know that's going to happen."

Nevertheless, Stroger lent his name as a sponsor to one of the amendments that relied on federal money.

"We are putting our faith that things will go well not only in the federal government but in the state," he said, noting that the state has "control over how federal dollars will flow to us."

Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), who is mulling a run next year against Stroger and sponsored the increase in revenue estimates, said he was confident the federal money would come through."First of all, that money is money we can bank on," Claypool said. "Second of all, it really doesn't matter. The county has plenty of money to operate. ... It was a phony deficit designed to justify Todd Stroger's desire to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to use as slush money for his re-election campaign."

During months of budget debate, Claypool has pointed out that the county expects to collect more than $370 million in new revenue from last year's increase in the sales tax, which Claypool opposed.

Stroger sought to borrow $220 million to cover three years of court costs and insurance claims, most of which result from medical malpractice. He also wanted the board to approve borrowing $104 million to cover the pension obligation. But he could not muster the votes for either bond issue.

Various unlikely political combinations of commissioners voted to pass the cuts, revenue changes and other smaller amendments to plug the hole.

"Tonight was a perfect illustration of the old maxim that politics makes strange bedfellows," Claypool said.

"We realized we needed to make the cuts to bring the board together," said Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, (D-Chicago) a regular Democrat who teamed up with Republicans to make budget cuts.

"We still have to come up with a plan to repay the pension," he said.

Noting the county's well-funded pension system, Stroger said he hoped to work out a deal with the pension fund to pay up to $30 million of the $104 million obligation this year and the rest over time.

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