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Better high-tech than high tax
November 30, 2004

Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
Editorial

year ago, facing a $100 million deficit, Cook County Board President John Stroger proposed a 4 percent tax on leased items in the county and a quarter-percent hike in the county sales tax. Calling for budget trims, his opponents blocked him, but three months later, he pushed through a cigarette tax hike, and $20 million more was mysteriously discovered at the 11th hour in obscure accounts to plug gaps.

Having succeeded in getting only $5 million in cuts approved, the opposition bloc can't be expected to fare much better this time around in getting the board to cut fat rather than find more taxes to raise in contending with what Stroger projects will be a $146 million deficit for 2005. As witness the increase in taxes of more than $500 million by the county over the last decade, it's always easier to make people pay more money than to make tough decisions that result in the elimination of patronage jobs and pork programs.

But if the county adopts a plan put forth by Commissioner Forrest Claypool to utilize available commercial technology for the electronic recording, processing and transferring of documents -- which would enable it to cut back on cumbersome, paper-generating processes that eat up overtime costs and slow efficiency -- it will at least advance the idea of streamlining government rather than boosting taxes as a first option. Claypool, chairman of the board's Information Technology and Automation Committee, says if the county used E-Recording and other technologies in three offices alone -- the Cook County recorder of deeds, clerk of the circuit court and sheriff -- it would save $35 million annually.

Calling the county's approach to technology "incremental and haphazard," he says the savings or generated funds will be even greater if technology is applied more broadly to county government. Augmented by convenience fees for users of these services, the savings would, he projects, be in excess of the estimated shortfall.

Other county governments have greatly benefitted from full or partial use of electronic filings and digital scannings and such. Miami-Dade was able to reduce staff by 19.5 percent and cases the staff deals with by half. While it's easy to get lost in all the numbers and assume that what works for one jurisdiction would work for ours, there is no denying the need for county government to join the 21st century.

If it had by now, the Cook County Board might not be embroiled in a lawsuit charging it employs too few guards at Cook County Jail to deal with overcrowding. With an automated jail system in operation, Claypool says, the county would be able to free up the revenue to hire dozens of more correctional officers. In the end, his plan is no more pie in the sky than the belief of too many in government that the sky is the limit for taxing people.



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