Todd Stroger inherits a crisisFiscal woes, infighting await heir apparent
Monday, July 03, 2006
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz
The budget is tens of millions of dollars out of whack, with critical funding
A host of growing scandals likely has caught the eye of federal agents.
Key allies are squabbling.
That's the picture confronting Todd Stroger as he begins to consider what it
actually would be like to be the next president of the Cook County Board.
From a structural budget deficit to unprecedented public fights among county
bureaucrats, Mr. Stroger will have little honeymoon if — as is likely
— he is named to replace his ailing father, Democrat John H. Stroger Jr.,
on the ticket and goes on to defeat the GOP nominee, county Commissioner Anthony
Peraica, in November.
"They're in a very tough fiscal position" that will worsen unless cuts are made
or new revenues are found, says Laurence Msall, a longtime watcher of county
finances as president of the Civic Federation of Chicago.
"He's headed into some pretty big problems," says county Commissioner Forrest
Claypool, who fell short in his bid to unseat John Stroger in the March primary.
After a messy succession battle, "the politics for him get worse now."
The problems start with money, specifically a $38-million hole in the $3-billion
budget halfway into the county's fiscal year.
Officials at the county's health system, which has racked up a $44-million
shortfall so far this year, say that gap will close by fall. In a dispute that's
as much over power as money, county Chief Financial Officer Thomas J. Glaser and
Comptroller Walter Knorr disagree. At a recent meeting, Mr. Glaser made a quip
about icebergs ahead and the necessity of wearing a good life jacket.
Whoever replaces John Stroger as Cook County Board president must cope with a
$38-million hole in the county's $3-billion budget.
Crain's file photo
Even if those problems are transitory, the federal government has begun cutting
back on funding for local Medicaid bills. That's one reason why the county had
to dip into reserves to cover a $70-million budget hole last year, an action
that would raise alarm bells if repeated this year. The county also will have to
finance the costs of settling a new pact with hospital nurses and complying with
a federal court order to hire more jail guards.
According to Mr. Msall and others, the fact is that county revenues overall are
rising slower than costs. But officials have been unwilling to implement
efficiency measures, such as eliminating duplication in administrative roles and
privatizing some county operations.
Many of those overlapping jobs are now filled by residents of the Strogers' home
8th Ward, and it's unlikely the younger Mr. Stroger will be any more willing
than his father to fire neighbors, Mr. Peraica predicts. But, at the same time,
the board in recent years has rejected moves by President Stroger to raise taxes
on businesses and sales and other levies.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Bobbie Steele, who generally has backed President
Stroger, has been complaining that she was bypassed in her request to be
considered for the presidency.
Ms. Steele did not return calls seeking comment.
Then there are political scandals.
The feds haven't totally unveiled their playbook, but even before the recent
trial of former city patronage chief Robert Sorich, the County Building buzzed
with talk that they were looking for the same kind of activity at the county.
Authorities surely are aware of complaints of widespread misconduct at the
county juvenile home and of a recent local indictment regarding a radiology
equipment contract at the county hospital.
Meanwhile, Todd Stroger, the 8th Ward alderman, said at a press conference last
week that he wants the job and is fully qualified to handle it. Since then, he
has not been available to elaborate or respond to sources close to the Stroger
family who question whether he really wants the post — or instead is being
pushed by political allies who want to protect their jobs and contracts.
In public comments last week, he expressed hope the board would clean up the
fiscal mess before the November election.
There is one piece of good news: Under normal circumstances, voters generally
pay little attention to county government, which mostly focuses on caring for
the sick and administering the criminal justice system.
That relative lack of attention will buy the younger Mr. Stroger some time. But,
given the challenges ahead, the clock won't run forever.