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A sound Chicago budget

Friday, November 04, 2005
Chicago Tribune

The $5.2 billion city budget unveiled by Mayor Richard Daley for 2006 seems disciplined, creative and responsible, striking a good balance between meeting public needs and protecting the public purse.

The plan laid out by Daley accomplishes many things. It holds the line on property taxes for the third straight year, always a welcome development for tax-weary voters. It keeps spending growth close to the rate of inflation. It brings the payroll to the lowest level since Daley took office. It finds revenue from non-traditional sources such as last year's sale of the Chicago Skyway and the expanded system of remote cameras to catch red-light runners.

The mayor's been under a lot of heat of late for political scandals that have cost him some of his top managers, raised questions about oversight by his administration and wasted city money. But we've noted that Daley has made some sound moves to resolve those problems. And when it comes to being careful and creative with city budgeting, he has long been considered first-rate.

The mayor and his staff contemplated a variety of tax proposals to plug a projected spending gap. There was talk of levying a special downtown area tax to help pay for running Millennium Park. They floated a parking tax increase and a tax on delivery services.

All ran the risk of creating disincentives to do business in Chicago, and the administration, to its credit, backed off. The mayor opted only for a 20-cent-per-pack bump in the levy on cigarettes, which we wish he had avoided. It raises a modest amount of revenue and will probably just lure more smokers to buy outside the city.

But all in all, Daley's people did their job well.

"The mayor is holding the line on property taxes, doing some cuts, and keeping growth to a minimum," said Lawrence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a tax watchdog group. "That's called managing city operations. Compare that to what's going on at Cook County, where there are no signs of going after efficiencies."

Ah yes, Cook County.

County Board President John Stroger recently hinted he might seek a tax increase to close a projected $300 million budget shortfall. Such pronouncements have become an annual ritual at the county, with Stroger reflexively asking for higher taxes only to later scale back his demands under great pressure from dissident commissioners.

This year, it appears that a majority of the County Board has already aligned against his tax proposals--mindful that there is a primary election in a few months. We strongly urge the commissioners to stay disciplined on this. And we urge them to take the initiative and adopt some of the many creative ideas for efficient government that have been proposed in recent years.

And if they need more ideas, they don't have to look far. They share a big downtown building with the City of Chicago.

Stroger and Co. need to learn a thing or two from the mayor when it comes to preparing a responsible, lean and creative budget.

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