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Fixing an obsolete Cook County

Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Chicago Tribune

You don't need a doctorate in public policy to understand that Cook County government is a model of overzealous taxation, scandalous cronyism and wasteful patronage. But the county's grossly featherbedded organization chart isn't just evidence that raising citizens' taxes is easier than slashing bloated operations. Cook County's is also an obsolete government that was structured for another century--no, not the 20th. The 19th.

In Illinois as in other states, county government originally was designed as a provider of municipal-style services--police protection, courts, public works--for unincorporated areas. Today, with less than 10 percent of Cook County still unincorporated and with the duties of different county offices badly overlapping, the entire structure desperately needs an overhaul.

A good recipe for doing just that is being circulated by Michael Quigley, one of 17 members of the Cook County Board. Over the last three years, Quigley has authored five excellent reports on ways to reform county government and end its chronically spendthrift ways.

Like its predecessors, Quigley's 67-page "Reinventing Cook County, Part I" will never top's list of best sellers. Only so many people want to read about how to simplify the arcane property tax system, restructure a dysfunctional government, eliminate unnecessary jobs and save fed-up taxpayers as much as $50 million a year in the process.

Quigley's report, with its recommendations that some costly and useless relics such as township government be jettisoned, evokes a point much larger than Cook County: Every now and then, governments should justify everything they do and every structure they have in place.

Publicly held corporations have to do that constantly. Government officials chafe at such comparisons with the private sector. One reason they chafe is that their own bailiwicks, where lifetime employment often is seen as an entitlement, just aren't very efficient. Instead of responding to changing needs and resources by restructuring, governments tend to get ossified. In the county's especially moribund government, that means viewing every tight budget year as an excuse to think about raising taxes, hard-pressed citizens and businesses be damned.

Especially in tough budget times, "layoffs of public employees shouldn't be seen as a community tragedy," says David Schulz, a professor of civil engineering at Northwestern University who contributed to Quigley's report. Schulz knows something about layoffs: As then-Mayor Harold Washington's budget director, Schulz in 1983 laid off 1,200 City of Chicago workers. "I never lost a moment's sleep," he says. "I understand that was difficult for 1,200 families--but for the rest of the 3 million people in the city, it had to be done." Because high taxation hurts residents and drives away businesses, Schulz says, wasteful governance "isn't a victimless crime. The crime is keeping people on the payroll if they're not absolutely necessary to the operation."

Quigley's report is more about streamlining government than about dumping unneeded jobs. But at Cook County, a good dose of the former should lead to the latter. The report opens with two sentences that make the point: "Reinventing government is about starting over. If we were to create Cook County today, knowing all that we now know about technology, government efficiency and innovation, where would we start?"

Probably not with a property tax system so convoluted that five different offices--those of the county recorder of deeds, assessor, clerk, treasurer and auditor--each has a thumb in the pie. Quigley proposes a single Office of Tax Administration to unify all these functions and add accountability: One person would be in charge.

Quigley's other proposals include:

- Merging the offices of the clerk and recorder. One feature of the status quo: One office keeps records of marriages and the other of divorces.

- Dissolving the sheriff's police and hiring adjacent police departments to patrol unincorporated areas. Despite the steady shrinkage of those unincorporated areas, the number of sheriff's patrol officers continues to rise.

- Transferring the county's 512 miles of roads--many of them short and isolated stretches--from the county's costly and inefficient Highway Department to local municipalities.

- Similarly transferring building, zoning and liquor control functions to local municipalities.

- Eliminating townships--anachronisms from the 1800s--and transferring what's left of their duties to the county or to municipalities.

- Merging the largely redundant city and county offices that conduct elections.

- Absorbing the county's four mosquito abatement districts--as well as the largely obsolete suburban tuberculosis sanitarium district--into the county's Department of Health.

- No longer permitting one person to serve as president of the County Board, an executive post, and as a member of the board, a legislative job. As is, the president can vote as a board member to uphold his own veto of an action the board takes. How loopy is that?

The point here isn't that each of these ideas is perfect or goes far enough, but rather that Quigley's effort to clear the cobwebs from county government is a good start. His various proposals would require County Board actions, state legislation or public referendums. But what his overhaul plan primarily needs is to be embraced by his colleagues on the board and in President John Stroger's administration. They need to see the county's tightening financial picture as what Schulz correctly calls "a golden opportunity to jump from the 19th Century to the 21st."

County Clerk David Orr supports several of the streamlining proposals. But other county officials who stand to see their political fiefdoms dwindle may not be so open-minded. As Paul Green, head of a public policy institute at Roosevelt University, puts it: "If you're looking for martyrs, don't look to officeholders. Not many of them want to eliminate their jobs."

In recent days, Stroger's apparatchiks have been talking with County Board members about possibly raising taxes to balance the county's next budget, for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

Maybe enough board members will want to commit political suicide badly enough to back a Stroger tax increase. They'd be smarter to refuse, and to put some muscle behind the waste-slashing ideas in Quigley's five reports. That's what voters clearly said they wanted last year, when they booted five supposedly secure County Board members straight out of office.

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