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Cook County leader tries to fight $500 million deficit
Some call forecast for deficit a scare tactic

Friday, September 29, 2006
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

As county financial experts forecast a $500 million deficit for the county budget next year, Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele unveiled some early ideas to rein in county government.
Some commissioners criticized a lack of specifics in Steele’s report, while others openly called the $500 million deficit projection a scare tactic to try to push through tax increases.
Steele was selected July 19 by fellow commissioners to fill the president’s chair after John H. Stroger resigned because of a stroke. She officially started Aug. 1 and created four panels to help her assess what needed to be done to get Cook County stabilized.
Thursday, Steele revealed snippets of those panels’ suggestions to cut costs — the same day Chief Financial Officer Tom Glaser confirmed the county is $500 million in the red for 2007, out of a nearly $3.1 billion budget. In her address later in the day after Glaser’s remarks, however, Steele said simply the amount was more than $400 million.
“The fact of the matter is, this financial quagmire did not happen overnight, and it can not be turned around in a matter of months,” said Steele, whose term expires the first week of December.

 

But to try, she’s asking all departments to spend only 96 percent of their budgets for 2006, and she’s asking them to cut their 2007 budgets to 90 percent of their 2006 spending.
That simply cannot be done, said Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine. To cut 10 percent would mean fewer prosecutors and jail guards, they said.
Many officials point to the Bureau of Health as the source of the deficit problems. That department is dozens of millions of dollars behind budget in collecting patient fees for 2006.
Almost everyone acknowledges the department needs reform. But many, like Democratic Commissioner Mike Quigley of Chicago, have said the sheriff’s department needs to take its share of cuts, too, since its unincorporated patrol area has gradually shrunk over the years. Steele appeared to take up that call as well.
Regarding the Health Bureau, though, Steele called for collecting monies from surrounding counties, which often send their patients to Stroger Hospital, the only public hospital in the region. Another cost-cutter will be to organize the department to ensure collection of payment when possible. Finally, standardizing covered prescription lists would help limit distributing medicines for which it cannot be reimbursed, said Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin
Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, a candidate for county president in November, said the $500 million figure was a scare tactic to try to convince voters a tax hike is needed.



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