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Steele: County must brace for tight budget

Friday, September 29, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Damian Buttel, AP

Facing one of the largest budget deficits in Cook County history, County Board President Bobbie Steele Thursday called for all county agencies to spend less than this year's allotted budget and take an even bigger hit next year.
"When added together, the total projected deficit for these two fiscal years is staggering," Steele declared in her "2006 State of Cook County Address."
Outlining proposed solutions to the county's budget woes, Steele asked for agencies "to spend down to 96 percent of their 2006 budget and take a 10 percent cut to help balance the 2007 budget."
She also warned of the elimination of "warm and fuzzy programs that need to be cut." However, she did not name any specific programs that would face the axe.
Steele's office anticipates a more than $400 million budget deficit for the 2006 fiscal year, citing an approximate $73 million revenue shortfall at the Bureau of Health Services. Health services make up 40 percent of Cook County's budget. An approximate $27 million shortfall in anticipated revenue from the cigarette tax was also cited.
Steele's address revealed the summary findings of her Transition Team composed of 60 local economic, academic and political leaders, both public and
private. Many of the team's suggestions remain abstract, however, as a full report is expected in the next 30 days. Generally, the outlined solutions urge the better collection and utilization of revenue rather than cutting services.
The number of county jobs, however, are up for potential cuts. Heightened scrutiny is being paid to the county's hiring and firing practices following reports of rampant corruption and the Sep. 21 FBI raid of the County's Human Resources Department for certain records.
Steele said "the elimination of non-performing employees in all departments... will also result in significant savings to taxpayers." She later added that if employees were not doing jobs well "then we're paying you too much."
Special attention was paid to the Bureau of Public Safety. "It's the Department of Public Safety driving the budget, not the president's office," Steele said.
Public Safety spends approximately half of Cook County's budget, or just more than $1 billion. Commissioner Jerry Butler urged the board to "take a real look at what's eating your tax dollars - that's the County Jail."
President Steele said, "We can not balance this budget on the back of the Office of the President alone." Other Cook County offices--such as the Sheriff's Office, States Attorney, County Clerk and others (some falling under Public Safety)--make up the remaining 60 percent of the County's budget.
Reactions varied among county commissioners, many of whom are waiting for details of the final report before weighing in on specifics. "I look forward to the final report," John Daley said, "so we can implement these changes."
A few lauded Steele's efforts. Mike Quigley commended Steele for starting "a process [that] should have started a long time ago."
Elizabeth Gorman said, "I'm very encouraged by the positive efforts. It's a new day in county government."
Peter Silvestri said Steele's efforts signified "a new level of inclusion, candor and transparency."
Anthony Peraica, who is currently running against Todd Stroger for Cook County Board president, was the most vocal detractor. "I have not heard any specifics about cutting this budget--cutting waste, corruption, bloated payrolls, patronage hires--these are the kind of things we need to do immediately," he said. "I think these are fictional figures thrown about to try to scare the public into thinking that taxes are inevitable," he said.

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