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Time to rein in Cook County's spending ways

Sunday, November 30, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times

There are two ways to cut government. You can trim away at the programs and structures themselves, which takes a lot of discipline and planning. Or you can simply cut funding and let the bureaucrats figure out what can't be afforded and so has to go. The general failure to try the former method has led to the popularity of the latter, such as a proposed 2 percent reduction in Cook County government.

Generally, we are dubious about across-the-board cuts. They punish the profligate and frugal alike, and fail to distinguish between the vital and the superfluous. But something has to be done to rein in county government. The proposal by the five opposition board members -- Forrest Claypool, Gregg Goslin, Michael Quigley, Anthony Peraica and Larry Suffredin -- seems our best hope. The "Rebel Five,'' as we'll call them, argue their plan would save $180 million, eliminating the need for a sales tax increase favored by President John Stroger and a new 4 percent lease tax.

We're all for that. The sales tax is high enough already (Mayor Daley just increased it for restaurants, a move he may regret if it hurts the vital convention and trade show business). A lease tax could be terribly damaging, pushing the huge business done with leased auto fleets into nearby counties and striking a blow at the local movie industry -- which is built on leased equipment -- at a time when we are trying to stem the flight of Hollywood dollars to Canada.

The plan would reduce spending by 2 percent from the current budget and 9 percent from the county's 2004 proposal. The Rebel Five claim that the $180 million cut would be absorbed by money carried over by the county every year, that no jobs or programs would be lost, and that their plan could lead to $100 million in property tax relief. Stroger says no, that 3,300 county positions would have to go, including 650 from the Cook County sheriff's office alone.

We say fine either way. If the Rebel Five are right, we avoid a painful sales tax increase and a damaging new tax with scant cost. And if Stroger is right, Cook County government is still out of control, and we need to find some way to bring it into line with fiscal realities. The sheriff's department patrols increasingly scattered and reduced pockets of unincorporated Cook County, along with its jail duties, and those patrols probably should be eliminated altogether, in keeping with Quigley's plan for re-inventing county government.

This might seem an unacceptable intrusion to Stroger, but his office needs to be more cooperative with cost-cutters like Quigley, Claypool and the other rebels. That his office refuses even to turn over budgetary material in an electronic form that lends itself to ready analysis, and instead forces the commissioners to plow through printed budgets, is a lamentable bit of cheap politics. We endorsed Stroger both times he ran for president and we're sympathetic to his claims that some costs are imposed on him, i.e. the inmates that pour into the jail from various law enforcement agencies. Still, Stroger needs to move to achieve the reform of county government he says he has always championed.

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