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Steele sees way out of red
10% in trims sought to ease $400 million Cook County deficit

Friday, September 29, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele said Thursday the county's budget deficit going into 2007 exceeds $400 million, and she asked all department heads and elected officials to cut their spending by 10 percent.

Steele, who will only be in office for four months, made the announcement as she unveiled the general findings and recommendations of her transition team. A full report will be completed in less than 30 days, Steele said.
Steele took office Aug. 1 and the next president's term begins Dec. 4. She is not running in the Nov. 7 election between Republican County Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) and Democrat Ald. Todd Stroger (8th) of Chicago.

Steele pledged to do "all I can" to propose a 2007 budget before she leaves office, but she said she would not make any guarantees.

"I don't have Oprah's money," Steele said. "I can't come up with $400 million overnight."

Steele warned county officials to return to their core missions and dump any "warm, fuzzy good-feel programs," although she declined to specify which programs she meant.

Peraica quickly said he did not believe the projected budget deficit figure cited by Steele. He noted that former President John Stroger routinely cited large budget deficits before unveiling his annual spending plans.

"I think these are fictional figures thrown about to try to scare the public into thinking that taxes are inevitable," said Peraica. But he added that the county needs to reduce its payroll and manage its money better.

In a prepared statement, Todd Stroger said he had met privately with Steele to review the transition report, and he praised her work. Stroger said he agreed that the budget should be balanced without raising taxes.

Stroger, the son of John Stroger, said Steele "has presented us with a giant leap forward on fiscal matters in Cook County. We can finally begin to start fresh and turn this county around."

Steele said the county was in a "financial quagmire," but her address gave little detail as to how it arrived there and how to get out of it. Steele did say that the $880 million health bureau budget has experienced "compounding fiscal deficits" and said her transition team identified ways to increase revenues without raising taxes.

Steele said she would establish a committee to look further at the health bureau.

Dorothy Brown, clerk of the Circuit Court and a candidate for mayor of Chicago, said she and her staff have closely examined her $100 million budget and determined that she could not cut 10 percent without affecting services and laying off workers.

County Clerk David Orr said he is "looking real hard" at his office's $33 million annual budget. He suggested that instead of across-the-board cuts, the larger departments, such as the health bureau, should be closely scrutinized.

Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, commended Steele for taking on the task but he criticized the report's lack of punch.

"Here's the problem, though, with the report: There was no will to action to really want to do anything," Roper said.

Roper said the county's problems are "very, very serious" and that board members had better "wake up or they're going to wake up in a different job."



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