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The 10 percent solution

Friday, December 15, 2006
Chicago Tribune

During her four-month stint as president of the Cook County Board, Bobbie Steele asked elected county officials and department heads to take a 4 percent reduction in their 2006 budgets and 10 percent cuts for 2007. This was an excellent idea (even if Steele didn't apply it to her exorbitant new pension).

Steele left the job of producing a 2007 budget to her successor, Todd Stroger. There are early signs that county officials are, indeed, sounding out commissioners about a lean budget.
The hope here is that Stroger sees this through, that he enforces the economizing that Cook County's spendaholic government desperately needs. If and when he does that, Stroger can expect howls of protest from county managers.

The elected officials (and some department heads) love to conjure up dire warnings about all the disastrous effects of shaving patronage hacks from their payrolls. If Stroger enforces the 10 percent cut Steele urged, don't be surprised to hear the affected county officials whine that the criminal justice system will collapse, ax murderers will run free, highways won't be plowed (even for ambulances) and feverish children will lie untreated in cold gutters. If Cook County had a fire department, some fiefdom-protecting bureaucrat would threaten to close that too.

A few county officials, such as Treasurer Maria Pappas, have found imaginative ways to exploit technology and save taxpayer dollars. Many other county bosses, though, have been on the public dole for so long that they seem frightened by even mild versions of the cost-cutting challenges that most private-sector managers have faced for many years.

Those bosses should hear from Stroger something Steele first told them: Cook County needs to return to its core missions--and ditch the no longer affordable programs, satellite offices and feel-good duties that clutter county government.

The county's long-bloated and deficit-ridden Bureau of Health Services needs major reform. The savings forecast by promoters of the new Stroger Hospital haven't materialized. And while you can work the numbers six ways from sundown, it's possible that the county now spends one-sixth of its entire budget--$500 million from a total of $3 billion--to care for an average of only 500 inpatients in its three hospitals. Put short: the Bureau of Health Services has been an embarrassment of dishonest administration, brazen patronage and slipshod finances for years.

If Cook County wants to stay in the business of running hospitals, one looming decision is how to scale back the current system's costly (and often underused) redundancies.

Todd Stroger has said he won't raise taxes to balance his 2007 budget. Good, because even if he did try, he likely doesn't have the votes on the County Board. He can, though, demand that elected officials and department heads make immediate changes to balance the '07 budget. That would give him time to implement the bigger structural changes that would drag county government from the 19th Century into the 21st.

Some county staffers are mulling the office consolidations and other streamlining proposals that fill board member Michael Quigley's series of "Reinventing Cook County" reports.

When Todd Stroger lays out his 2007 budget, we'll see if he has embraced the reform ideas. One clue: Will he insist on a 10 percent solution?

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