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County's looming deficit is huge
Some say tax hike is needed to cover $163 million shortfall

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Ever-increasing personnel costs, a need for more jail guards and an expected decline in federal health-care funding will put Cook County in a $163 million hole before next year, county officials said Monday.

Commissioner Gregg Goslin, a Republican from Glenview who has voted against tax proposals in recent years, said a property tax hike may be unavoidable in 2007.

"You can see the pressure's building," said Goslin, adding he could vote for a tax increase if he knew it was earmarked to pay for additional jail guards.

John Daley, chairman of the county's Finance Committee, said it was too early to say a tax increase would be needed in 2007.

"I think by September, October we should have a very good idea where we are headed," Daley said.

Board President John Stroger has not been seen or heard from publicly since he suffered a stroke nine weeks ago. Democratic Party leaders say there is a growing sense that Stroger will not remain on the ballot in the November election.

Stroger's son, Ald. Todd Stroger (8th), U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), and County Commissioner Bobbie Steele (D-Chicago) have all said they would be interested in being slated as the party's candidate if Stroger drops out.

County Commissioner Mike Quigley said the financial picture is bleak if the county doesn't take action.

"Don't ask for this job if you're not ready to make the tough decisions to make this government more efficient," said Quigley in a warning to Stroger's would-be successors.

Steele, vice chair of the Finance Committee, said government could be streamlined but it is "conceivable" a tax increase will be needed.

"As demand goes up we have to find revenues to cover the costs," Steele said.

Commissioner Tony Peraica, the Republican nominee for board president in the Nov. 7 election, said he believes that a tax increase can be avoided in 2007.

"They're always crying wolf. It's part of the strategy," Peraica said.

County Comptroller Walter Knorr said the government is on a "financial tightrope" for the rest of 2006.

Medicaid payments through a mechanism called the intergovernmental transfer are scheduled to drop by $50 million in 2007. The decrease was intensified after the county earlier this year got state officials to agree to advance $20 million in 2006 that otherwise would have been paid in 2007.

"It basically increased our problem for '07," Knorr said.

Personnel costs next year are expected to rise by about $100 million, and another $13 million will likely be needed to hire more guards at the understaffed County Jail.

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