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Overdue cuts at Cook County

Monday, November 15, 2004
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

Nine months ago, the Cook County Board approved a tax increase rather than make a relatively tiny cut in the county's $3 billion budget. The vote was 9-8--and for several members it may prove to be political trouble.

Four of the yes votes came from board members who had pledged in writing when they ran for office in 2002 that they would demand that county budgets be balanced by reducing spending rather than raising taxes. The four: Earlean Collins, John Daley, Joan Patricia Murphy and Deborah Sims. Daley is secure, but the other three could be ousted in 2006 when all 17 board seats are up for election. Murphy and Sims voted against the interests of businesses in their districts. Collins gets some credit for blocking sales and lease taxes. Those proposals, from Board President John Stroger, failed because Collins wouldn't support them.

The 2004 increase quintupled, to $1 a pack, the county tax on a pack of cigarettes. Taxing willing smokers is better than, say, raising the sales tax that every citizen must pay. But this page argued that Cook County shouldn't get one more nickel from taxpayers until it modernizes its antiquated operations and unloads many of its patronage payrollers. That stand hasn't changed one iota.

Stroger is now late in proposing the county's budget for fiscal 2005, which begins in just 16 days. A spokesman for Stroger says a shortfall of $252 million has been narrowed to $146 million, and that beancounters are looking for more cuts. But beware: More tax hike proposals are likely.

That would be maddening. Reports suggesting hundreds of millions in savings have been piling up since 2001, when Stroger appointed a County Operations Review Team--a group of managers who studied all the county does with an eye toward consolidating, cutting and curbing the runaway spending. Board members Gregg Goslin and Michael Quigley, among others, also have made excellent savings proposals.

And, in response, the County Board has done ... what? A majority of board members have, over the past nine months, engineered what reforms to consolidate, cut and curb? Come 2006, every board member who hasn't worked to aggressively slash spending should be ousted. Remember, in 2002 county voters dumped five supposedly safe board incumbents out of office.

Already, there are whispers in the County Building about a trick that just might insulate board members from the same fate in the next election. "First we delay any spending we can from 2005 into 2006," the whispers go. "Then we make sure the proposed 2006 budget--with whatever unpopular tax hikes we'll want--is delayed until December 2005." Um, why then? "Because the filing deadline for candidates in the March 2006 primary election will fall in December 2005." Um, this sounds sneaky. "See, that way the challengers will have a harder time stoking public anger, building support and raising money before the filing deadline. So we get re-elected!"

That scam, if it surfaces, won't go unnoticed.

Neither will the desire of some county officials to put Stroger, whose budget includes their bloated operations, in a bind. For years, Stroger has asked county officials to live with their prior year's budget. Some--notably Sheriff Michael Sheahan--don't do as Stroger asks. Then, when Stroger winds up proposing a needlessly big county budget and tax increases to pay for it, the fiefdom-builders are nowhere to be seen.

Enough. A proposal: In coming days, as Stroger unveils his 2005 budget and explains it to the press, any official asking for more money should stand with Stroger and answer tough questions about why Cook County can't live within its means. That's only fair--to Stroger and to taxpayers. Out here in the real world, bosses have to justify requests for fatter budgets. That scrutiny exposes lousy managers who don't know how to deploy their resources more efficiently.

Cook County doesn't need tax hikes. It needs massive spending cuts--that means fewer employees--too long postponed. The task for voters is to harshly evaluate any official who wants that extra nickel from hard-pressed taxpayers--and any County Board member who says yes.



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