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Freshmen Unite - Almost
Cook County Board Braces for Budget Bhowdown

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Daily Southtown
by Kristen McQueary

Not all the freshmen commissioners elected to the Cook County Board a year ago are backing an alternative budget that trims purported waste in county government.

Joan Patricia Murphy of Crestwood, swept into office with four other newcomers, said Monday she'll vote with President John Stroger - not her freshmen counterparts - on the 2004 budget. Stroger's budget includes increasing the sales tax to 1 percent, up from 0.75 percent, and a lease tax of 4 percent.

"Sometimes you have to make a hard choice," she said. "I've given it a lot of thought, but I have to look out for our programs and services."

As for allegations of wasteful spending in the county, Murphy said: "I'm not convinced of it. The new freshmen have not shown me specifics on how this cut can work without cutting services."

A budget proposed by freshmen commissioners Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) and Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside) would cut spending in nearly every county department by 2 percent. The plan also would eliminate a $200 million year-end balance and cut unfilled jobs that get carried over year to year. Tax increases, they say, wouldn't be necessary.

Suffredin said the practice of setting aside money for job openings - but not filling them - creates "hidden money" for department heads to spend later. He characterized a 34 percent jump in overtime costs between 2001 and 2004 as an abuse of taxpayer money.

Officials with Stroger's office, however, defended spending.

The $200 million year-end balance already is rolled into the spending plan for 2004. Cash balances are considered sound financial planning, not over-taxation, according to Stroger spokeswoman Caryn Stancik.

"It's not a surplus. There's no pot of money sitting there," Stancik said. "That fund balance is one reason we've continued to get bond rating upgrades."

The 2 percent cut proposed by the commissioners would actually equal about 9 percent, Stancik said. Some departments are seeing small increases under Stroger's plan. Departments would lose that, plus 2 percent.

And the unfilled positions budgeted for 2004 are jobs that need to be filled, including 99 slots in the public defender's office, she said.

"Do you know how hard it is to get attorneys in the public defender's office? We have an open posting for lawyers. We have an open posting for nurses," she said. "That's what accounts for the overtime."

The standoff is expected to come to a vote Dec. 9. So far, Murphy - a potential swing vote based on her freshman status - is with Stroger.

Freshman Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park) didn't return a call, but previously said she was leaning toward the alternative plan.

Veteran Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago) said freshmen members don't know the budget process.

"They may have some ideas worth looking at, but to just come in and cut 2 percent across the board without knowing the ramifications is a bit much," Sims said.

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