2% County Budget Cut Proposed
Monday, November 24, 2003
by Abdon M. Pallasch
Five opposition Cook County board members today will propose a 2 percent across-the-board budget cut, which they contend will stave off tax hikes backed by Board President John Stroger.
The members contend their plan would save the county $180 million, completely eliminating the need for a 4 percent tax on leased cars and a hike in the sales tax proposed by Stroger.
The county finishes every year with about $200 million more than it expected, and the budget routinely carries more than 1,000 unfilled positions every year, so the cuts could be made without anyone losing their jobs or important programs being cut, the board members say.
Stroger's staff disagrees, saying the cut would force the firing of 3,600 county employees. Sheriff Michael Sheahan alone would have to cut 650 employees, county officials said. That's because the 2 percent cut applies to this year's budget, not next year's, which has a huge increase because of union-mandated employee raises.
The opposition-bloc board members say $100 million could be refunded to county homeowners if the 2 percent cut goes through.
Each year, county officials deliberately leave more than 1,000 positions unfilled all year so the money can be there to be transferred midyear to overtime budgets to reward political hires, said Commissioner Forrest Claypool, one of the five pushing the 2 percent cut.
"It is a way to keep fat in the budget," Claypool said. "The Cook County budget is a patronage fiefdom, a jobs-for-politicians plan."
But county officials say many of the 1,400 or more funded but unfilled positions are for nurses and other medical personnel at Stroger Hospital and other county hospitals and clinics. County officials are trying to fill those openings, but because of a shortage of nurses, they go unfilled and the money goes to overtime for the nurses already on staff, said Stroger spokeswoman Caryn Stancik.
Mayor Daley last week passed his budget on a 50-0 City Council vote. Stroger, by contrast, faces a best-case scenario of passing his budget 9-8, including his own vote, Dec. 9. All five Republican board members and the three opposition Democrats, Mike Quigley, Forrest Claypool and Larry Suffredin, have vowed to vote against his proposed lease tax and sales tax increase. And Stroger's nine votes are not solid.
Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-Chicago) is still making up her mind but was leaning Friday toward voting against the lease tax, which would force changes in Stroger's proposed budget.