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No borrowing for yearly expenses in Cook budget

Friday, February 13, 2009
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Foes of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger claimed victory this week after the administration apparently gave up its plan to borrow $360 million for recurring expenses.

Instead, commissioners cut most departments roughly 4 percent from the level they had planned to fund them at. The exception was the hospitals and clinics system, which commissioners went lighter on in recognition of its new independent management board, cutting only 2 percent.

Stroger had initially asked commissioners for roughly $770 million in borrowing authority to cover $109 million in pension payments, $260 million to fund the county's lawsuit expenses for about three years, and about $400 million for capital projects like facility repair and construction.

He initially gained the support of Republican commissioners in that plan, who authorized the borrowing months ago, but later turned against it after being soundly drubbed in local editorial pages for borrowing millions just a year after a $380 million sales tax hike.

Ironically, by persisting in his quest for the borrowing for recurring expenses, Stroger lost more than $100 million in capital projects, which initially hadn't even been questioned by the board, as commissioners scrutinized the budget for areas to cut.

The loggerhead was broken Tuesday when Commissioners Joseph Mario Moreno and William Beavers, two Chicago Democrats and supporters of Stroger, offered an amendment with the cuts.

The cuts were not as dire as initially predicted as county administrators revised their projections, accounting for new monies they believe will arrive with the federal stimulus package now working its way to President Barack Obama's desk.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool said the board ended up funding the lawsuit fund at $90 million, what it spends in a typical year.

How the pension payment of $109 million, which is now overdue, will be paid is less clear, but there is talk of asking the pension fund for permission to pay the amount gradually, rather than all at once.

"The upshot to me is that it's a victory to taxpayers because Todd Stroger's massive borrowing plan was defeated." said Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a Chicago Democrat who led the anti-borrowing revolt alongside Democratic Commissioner Mike Quigley, also of Chicago.

A Stroger spokesman was not available for immediate comment Thursday.

While the roughly $3 billion budget has passed out of the finance committee, it still needs full approval next week before the entire board, but passage is expected since the finance committee consists of all board members.

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