County officials balk at cutsCook's services would be slashed, many say
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
by Mickey Ciokajlo
Slashing their budgets by 17 percent would be too drastic a measure and would force service cuts, Cook County elected officials said Tuesday.
They were reacting to a new directive from County Board President Todd Stroger, who has given them and department heads until Friday to present budget proposals that reflect the cuts, which could force the layoffs of an estimated 6,200 workers.
Stroger, who took office two weeks ago, is struggling to close a projected $500 million deficit in 2007 while keeping a campaign promise not to increase taxes next year.
Stroger's finance team will draw up a budget after getting the proposals. A target date has not been given for the budget's release, but state law requires the board to vote on it by Feb. 28.
"We can get to the number they want, but there's a huge cost," said Lucio Guerrero, spokesman for County Assessor James Houlihan.
Guerrero said such a deep budget reduction would force the office to cut taxpayer services and delay the transfer of money to agencies such as schools, park districts and municipalities.
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said a 17 percent cut would "almost immobilize" her office and have a "crippling effect," as she would be forced to lay off about 500 workers.
Sally Daly, spokeswoman for Sheriff Tom Dart, said that office was close to cutting its budget by 10 percent, which had been the goal set by former Board President Bobbie Steele.
"But 17 percent is extreme, and we really don't think that can be accomplished," Daly said.
Daly said Dart and his finance team met with Stroger's administration last week before the new directive was issued.
"They seemed very pleased with the direction we were heading," Daly said. "This came out of the blue."
State's Atty. Richard Devine said his office has not met with the Stroger administration, but he said he was concerned with the arbitrary nature of a proposed across-the-board cut.
"The right way to do this is to sit down with people, define what the core duties are, which everybody talks about, and then decide how much it will cost to pay for those," Devine said. "We're doing it just the reverse."
Stroger said in putting together the budget he would take into consideration officials who have cut their budgets previously. "We will use common sense," he said.
Treasurer Maria Pappas said her office already has cut 104 workers in the last four years. She noted that union-scale county salaries have increased since 1998 by an average of 53 percent. "Only in America," Pappas said.
County Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) said it was too early to react definitively to Stroger's proposal. Claypool said he could support a budget that cuts patronage workers and duplicative functions, but not one that slashes law enforcement and health services.
Saying there are no alternatives, Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) said she has told the Stroger administration that she would support the budget cuts, although the idea of laying off workers "upsets" her.
Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside), Stroger's opponent in the November election, said that Stroger has no choice but to cut the payroll to balance the budget but that he doubts 6,200 jobs would be cut.
"We have to remember that unions backed President Stroger heavily and financed him heavily, and I think it would be a surprise if we have that kind of reduction proposed by the president's office," Peraica said.