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Stop the Stroger Squeeze...

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Having done little in recent years to radically restructure the wasteful government he oversees, John Stroger, president of the Cook County Board, has the ideal (to him, anyway) fix for an $86 million shortfall in his 2004 budget. He wants to raise the county's sales tax and create a new lease tax on whatever citizens rent, from video games to cement mixers.

The sales tax increase is egregious in part because it would squeeze the poorest citizens who spend virtually all of their income buying goods for their families. The lease tax proposal is egregious because it invites businesses in the service sector -- many of which employ working-class clerks and other staffers -- to abandon Cook County and set up shop somewhere else.

Before they vote on Stroger's budget, members of the County Board should reflect on whom, exactly, it would hurt. The answer is obvious.

So is the problem. Stroger's failure to downsize county government--and to aggressively browbeat other elected county officials to help him accomplish that--has now landed squarely in his own lap. The county's personnel and other structural costs, basic overhead, are far too high, as studies sponsored by Stroger and others have noted for years. Stroger isn't solely to blame. Lamb-like members of the County Board have reliably voted for the flabby budgets of recent years rather than demand that county officials slash their patronage-larded payrolls.

In recent days, three strategies have been floated for cutting expenses to avoid Stroger's tax increases for fiscal 2004:

- On Monday, five County Board members proposed that next year's budget reflect a 2 percent, across-the-board cut from this year's actual expenditures. That would target what one of the five, Forrest Claypool, calls "stashed cash," money Cook County routinely packs into the budget for vacant positions and overtime.

- Last week the Civic Federation, a respected watchdog group, issued a report that highlighted the greatest weakness of Stroger's budget: It asks a 4 percent increase in appropriations without any significant attack on structural costs or chronic inefficiencies. The Civic Federation cited almost $200 million in possible savings--much of that from recommendations that have been discussed, but not acted upon, for years.

- If these broader-brush efforts don't attract enough support, several County Board members will push narrower budget amendments to cut spending. Commissioner Gregg Goslin's proposals include forcing most departments to hold spending to their 2003 appropriations and overhauling the program of "step increases" that has helped some employees receive annual pay raises of more than 8 percent. Commissioner Michael Quigley's packet of amendments includes numerous ideas from five detailed reports his office has issued on curbing county inefficiency.

What these three approaches share is the basic realization that Stroger's budget, and the tax increases on which it would be balanced, don't begin to cut the flab. As the Civic Federation report notes, Mayor Richard Daley has been far more aggressive in downsizing city government than Stroger & Co. have been at Cook County, where total employment tops 26,000.

County Board members have a choice. They can choose from three good approaches for cutting spending. Or they can embrace Stroger's tax increases. But they make that choice knowing it will squeeze the impoverished citizens whose interests many of them claim to represent.

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