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Suicide watch at Cook County

Monday, November 03, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Back in July 2001, the flabby, patronage-larded government of Cook County produced something uncharacteristic: a report suggesting smart ways for the county to get off the backs of taxpayers by slashing more than $100 million a year in spending.

Internally this was called the report produced by CORT, short for County Operations Review Team--a group of managers who looked at everything the county does with an eye toward consolidating, cutting and curbing runaway spending. The CORT Report was ordered up by County Board President John Stroger, whose name appeared on its cover, and who said it was "meant to challenge conventional thinking and initiate discussions on how to save taxpayers' money and improve operating efficiency . . . "

What happened to all those excellent recommendations? Stroger's administration implemented a few, but most died on the vine. Now, after another two years of declining to streamline operations, the county looks to be $86 million short for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

Does Stroger propose to meet that shortfall by taking bold steps like those proposed in his own CORT Report to save . . . $100 million-plus a year?

Nah. He's proposing a sales tax increase and a new lease tax on whatever citizens rent, from videos to automobiles. Why? Because raising taxes has always been easier than firing the ward heelers whom the taxpayers of Cook County have supported for eons.

Eight of the 17 county commissioners, and perhaps nine, appear ready to reject Stroger's tax increases. To pass those increases, Stroger needs the votes of commissioners whose district constituents are the poorest of the poor in Cook County. That's right, Stroger wants these commissioners, many of whom represent minority communities, to approve a hike in a sales tax that has its greatest impact on the poor.

This merits a suicide watch at the County Building. How many commissioners will want to seriously risk shortening their political careers by voting for Stroger's tax increases? Some, such as Roberto Maldonado, could have promising futures. Some, such as Earlean Collins, represent constituents who have enough painful financial problems without being forced to pay more in taxes for all they buy or rent.

Stroger says this will be the fourth straight year he has not increased property taxes and the third straight year he has cut the number of employees. He deserves credit for that.

But the bottom line is that the structural cost of Cook County is way too high and keeps flying higher. Yet Stroger is telling Maldonado, Collins and other commissioners that he would rather wring more in taxes from the poor people they represent than tell his department heads and the other elected county officials that they have no choice but to cut their payrolls for next year to meet this year's expenditures.

That would require the kind of backbone the County Board has never shown in approving years of sweetheart budgets for those elected officials, or in negotiating patty-cake contracts with its labor unions. Stroger last week singled out Sheriff Michael Sheahan as an officeholder who has been especially reluctant to see his fiefdom downsized. Sheahan responded by withdrawing Stroger's five-man security detail.

Stroger says personnel costs now consume 85 percent of the county budget. That's partly because employees pay a measly one-quarter of 1 percent of their income for health coverage. It's also because, as Stroger admitted last week, "Step increases and cost of living adjustment combined provide pay raises that sometimes exceed 8 percent annually."

In times that are tough for many taxpayers, Cook County is handing some of its 26,000 employees pay raises of more than 8 percent. The county has no plan for cutting structural costs so the same problems don't keep erupting year after year. Nor does the county have a rational scheme for collecting taxes relevant to the services it provides. The only evident reason to tax leases and rentals is the reason some people climb mountains: because they're there. What will Stroger announce a year from now that the county wants to tax? Cats' tails? Deep breaths?

The county hasn't raised property taxes, but it's raising other taxes and inventing new ones. The way off this merry-go-round is to slash the county's structural costs. To find out where to start, Stroger might want to reread his own CORT Report from 2001.

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