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Crony taxes and the poor

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

Cook County commissioners are nearing a vote to cheat the health-care needs of their poorest citizens. All because board President John Stroger would rather keep funding his costly patronage army than devote needed dollars to the medical care of the people he pretends to protect.

The vote, likely in early February, will ask board members to approve Stroger's proposed $3 billion county budget for 2006.

Cook County government long ago reached the point that cronyism--jobs for relatives and friends, contracts for relatives and friends, shabby treatment for everyone else--stripped too many dollars away from county services. That amounts to a hidden crony tax, like the unofficial corruption tax that also siphons off money needed for county programs. Taxpayers can no longer afford the crony and corruption taxes.

Case in point: Federal prosecutors are probing a seamy case in which a west suburban contractor allegedly passed a $20,000 bribe to a county purchasing official to help secure a $49 million equipment contract at Stroger Hospital. The feds have wielded other charges and subpoenas in the case, so it's not yet clear where the investigation will lead. What is clear is that, had the alleged scheme succeeded, county taxpayers would have been the victims.

The steady cascade of news reports about county favors for insiders, along with the growing list of corruption investigations in county government, should motivate the commissioners to wise up. And it should motivate voters to pay attention to the differences between Stroger and his opponent in the March 21 Democratic primary, Commissioner Forrest Claypool.

Claypool wants to downsize the county's vast workforce of administrators and other paper-shufflers. That would free up more dollars for poor people's health care.

Last year the County Board demanded that Stroger's administration consolidate non-medical parts of the county's health bureaucracy--public relations, human resources and so forth. A year later and ... where's the consolidation? Where are the savings that could shorten waiting-room time for patients or fill their prescriptions more efficiently?

Stroger knew a year ago that without massive cost-cutting and aggressive efficiencies, his 2006 budget would balance only if he raised taxes. Yet another year has gone by without the structural savings that are the county's only hope for improving health services.

In a detailed dissection of Stroger's proposed budget, the Civic Federation has nailed the county's serial refusal to reduce personnel costs (www.civicfed.org). The report cites "missed opportunities for cost-cutting and unfulfilled promises of improved management," a long phrase that could serve as Cook County government's motto. In the words of federation President Laurence Msall, the budget "represents a short-term fix and does nothing to address the county's ongoing structural deficit."

Excellent plans for reforming the county's wasteful ways have been piling up for years, primarily because Stroger's real interest is in protecting the jobs of loyal political workers on the county payroll. As for county taxpayers and the people who rely on Cook County for health care, well, those folks don't count for much in Cook County's priorities.



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