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Stroger warns of county tax hike

Saturday, November 20, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Pick your poison.

A tax increase appears inevitable, Cook County Board President John Stroger said Friday, it's just a matter of which tax.

Hotels, cigarettes, food and beverages, concerts, clothing and, yes, property taxes, are among those things that could be more costly next year, Stroger said.

It's going to take more than $3 billion to run county government next year, which includes expenses to run hospitals, courts, the jail and standard government offices.

Stroger said he'll release final budget figures "in the next few weeks," but first must fill a $146 million budget deficit through cuts and "we have to do what we think is best," including finding "new revenue sources."

Sheahan under pressure of county audit to cut budget request

Read: new taxes.

'Not that simple'

He said $106 million has already been cut from the 2005 budget, and while "there may be room for additional cuts, you can't just say cut across the board 2 percent," because "it's not that simple."

Stroger was candid at his news conference, but appeared to be delaying the inevitable announcement of higher taxes, well aware that Mayor Daley has just finished asking Chicago taxpayers to pony up more to balance his city budget.

Other county officials stood with Stroger, including Assessor Jim Houlihan, State's Attorney Dick Devine, Clerk Dorothy Brown and some commissioners, each committed to cuts and finally raising "new revenues" if needed.

When the news conference started, Commissioner Mike Quigley stood in the back, but as it went on, he moved to the front, standing by those with Stroger.

"It's a question of political will and are we willing to take on these sacrifices," Quigley said, adding that Stroger is "a good man, a nice man, but he's too kind" to other officials demanding more money.

'Difficult decisions'

Often a Stroger critic, he instead called on his colleagues to "stand behind" Stroger as "a unified county board" and "say 'no' " to those asking for more tax money.

He said the full board must demand that officials "make sacrifices so taxpayers don't."

Stroger said he has cut 1,400 jobs under his supervision since 1995 and though property taxes haven't gone up in that period, "we have some very difficult decisions" to make in coming weeks, because "we just don't have the revenue sources" to keep the county going.

Many are expecting this year's budget battle to mirror last year, when it was to be passed by Dec. 1, but instead dragged into February.


Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, the John Howard Association and even federal judges have said there's a severe staffing shortage at the Cook County Jail.

Sheahan's answer is to ask for $7.2 million more from taxpayers to pay for 200 new jail guards.

Many Cook County commissioners, however, believe Sheahan can move enough of his 6,479 existing employees to fill those roles.

Friday, behind closed doors, they began auditing the sheriff's staff for job titles and descriptions.

It's something they said they'll do with every office, but are starting with the sheriff because of his request for 200 new jobs.

The effort finds Stroger and adversaries like Mike Quigley on common ground in calling for Sheahan to make tough cuts in his proposed budget.

"I can't cut any more," Sheahan said, pointing to a budget that has 121 fewer employees than in 1995.

Saying he's "squeezed for the last 10 years," he wants $30 million more than last year, but $23 million of that is due to raises approved by commissioners.

Stroger said he can increase Sheahan's budget and give him 83 new positions, including 50 at the jail, but "we can't afford" more.

Quigley said Sheahan's budget has increased $92 million in five years and "if he managed his facilities in an appropriate fashion," he wouldn't be "the poster person for wasteful government."

Sheahan fired back: "The only thing Quigley's ever run is his mouth."

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