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Congratulations, taxpayers

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

For Todd Stroger, it was a tough repudiation: Tuesday night the Finance Committee of the Cook County Board reached an agreement that—if it holds—would force his county government to begin a long-overdue economizing. As tentatively approved, the county's budget for 2009 would include:

•None of the hundreds of millions in needless borrowing on which Stroger had hoped to balance the budget.

•Cuts from Stroger's proposed budget for virtually every department in this bloated government.

•No general tax increase on the heels of last year's egregious increase in the sales tax.

A companion plus:

•Off-budget proposals from Stroger's administration for $425 million in capital improvement bonds have been slashed to $260 million. Those proposals, still subject to a board vote, now focus more strictly on life safety projects and building code compliance.

Just as Cook County government remains a world away from real reinvention (and still needs to repeal that sales tax hike), this revised version of Stroger's budget isn't ideal: It relies on some revenue projections that may be too rosy—and on an anticipated share of the federal stimulus package.

It does, though, reflect the frustration of county taxpayers, many of whom inundated board members' offices with telephone calls after seeing their numbers on Monday's Tribune editorial page. Those callers disliked Stroger's plan to balance the '09 budget by borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars and thus increasing the county's debt.

Last fall we criticized four Republican members of the board—Elizabeth Doody Gorman, Gregg Goslin, Peter Silvestri and Tim Schneider—for maneuvers that allowed Stroger's bonding notion to draw an early breath. They promised then that they could stop the bonding later and, with help from fellow Republican Tony Peraica and a roving coalition of Democrats, on Tuesday they did.

Why is this deal tentative? Two reasons:

•Owing to the arcana of county government, the same board members who voted this budget out of the Finance Committee now must approve it, before February ends, at a County Board meeting. That leaves time for whining from other county officials, many of whom think they can't possibly live with less money—even during an economic downturn in which millions of people have lost jobs. We hope no one embarrasses Finance Chairman John Daley by falling victim to the whiners and undoing this deal.

•One unfortunate Stroger proposal remains: a plan to issue bonds for $104 million in county pension obligations. Plans are in the works to spread out those payments over perhaps a dozen years or otherwise avoid any bonding. That's crucial: Pension obligations are routine operating expenses and shouldn't be covered by taking on debt. Long story: Board members have themselves to blame for ever letting this notion surface. They need to put it out of its misery—forever.

More trees still need to fall in Todd Stroger's petrified forest. But Tuesday night's budget agreement signals a start. Now let's reinvent Cook County for the 21st Century.

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