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Cook County faces cash crunch
Sources say gov't may need to borrow to fund operations

Sunday, April 02, 2006
Crain's Chicago Business

Already reeling from the hospitalization of President John H. Stroger Jr., Cook County government now faces a troubling financial predicament: a cash crunch that sources say could force the county to borrow short-term operating funds for the first time in a decade.

Sources inside county government report that county officials approached a major Chicago bank in recent weeks to discuss establishing a line of credit up to $200 million, and that the county is considering talking with other institutions. Tapping such a line would allow the county to cover its operating expenses, beginning around mid-year, until second-half property tax revenues come in late this summer and officials can consider possible cost cuts, those sources say.

The funding deficit appears to be the result of revenue shortfalls, mostly from county-run hospitals.

James Wigham, Mr. Stroger's chief of staff, released a statement saying the county is "not considering, nor do we have plans to seek, a $200-million line of credit." The statement also says it is "premature" to gauge whether spending will remain within the limits set in the $3.1-billion budget for the fiscal year that began Dec. 1.

But two other county commissioners tell a different story.

Commissioner Michael Quigley says the County Board has not been officially informed of the shortfall, but says "county officials" have told him privately that they are investigating lines of credit. "There's smoke out there to make you think this is true," Mr. Quigley says. Mr. Quigley backed Mr. Stroger's challenger, Forrest Claypool, in the March 21 Democratic primary, which Mr. Stroger narrowly won.

John Daley, a Stroger ally who heads the County Board's Finance Committee, says the Stroger administration has not informed him that it wants to establish a line of credit, an action that would require board approval. But Mr. Daley makes it clear that he has growing concerns about the state of county finances.

Revenues at county-run John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital ran $60 million short of budget last year, and receipts from the county's cigarette tax have lagged, Mr. Daley says, and he has sponsored a pending resolution that would require the county to begin issuing monthly financial reports.

"Would I be surprised if they wanted a line of credit? When we passed the (fiscal 2006) budget, I was concerned about revenues. I knew we would have to come back at mid-year and review them," Mr. Daley says.

Rumors of cash-flow problems have been circulating for weeks. Finances were a major issue in the primary election: Mr. Stroger emphasized that the county's bond rating is at a record high, and Mr. Claypool questioned the status of the county's health fund and blasted Mr. Stroger for a series of tax hikes.

Cook County has not engaged in short-term borrowing since 1995, Mr. Daley and other sources say. The borrowing would require the county to pay interest and other fees.

The bond market generally will not object to seasonal short-term borrowing — unless it is a sign of longer-term, underlying problems, says Joseph O'Keefe, an analyst with Fitch Ratings in Chicago.

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