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Stroger should lead by example on budget cuts

Friday, December 22, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County needs to cut its costs by a half a billion dollars to balance its 2007 budget. New County Board President Todd Stroger this week raised protests among other countywide politicians and officials by demanding they help him do that by slashing their own budgets by 17 percent. Many of them complained that across-the-board cuts are overly simplistic and will penalize offices that already are doing a good job cutting waste. We agree -- but that doesn't let anyone off the hook.
Stroger promised during his campaign that he planned to slash thousands of jobs from a county payroll of about 26,000 to address the looming deficit. He should know that voters will not tolerate a tax increase -- and we doubt the County Board would pass one anyway. And so although we believe mandating the same cut on every office is the wrong approach, every office should be prepared for deep, deep cuts -- or be prepared to advocate for a tax increase to balance their budgets.
Take, for instance, the office of Public Defender Ed Burnette, who makes a good case that a 17 percent cut in his office would end up costing the county money. Because the county is required to provide a defense lawyer to poor people, it would have to hire more expensive outside lawyers if it doesn't have enough public defenders available. That would be counterproductive, and we trust Stroger, who said he'll use "common sense" when making cuts, will recognize the strength of the argument. At the same time, we hope Burnette is busy identifying areas in his office that can be cut without costing the county money.
Stroger, like caretaker President Bobbie Steele before him, has told offices that they should look to preserve their core services while trimming expensive extras. But officials are warning -- perhaps a bit overdramatically -- that the cuts inevitably will impact basic services and perhaps lead to mayhem. There'll be fewer guards at the jail. Fewer prosecutors, public defenders and clerks in the courts. Longer lines for county services everywhere. County residents might have to accept those changes as the cost of avoiding a tax increase -- but only if a long list of officials involved in the budget can demonstrate that they cut all the fat before they got to the lean meat.
Stroger, who has asked other officials to present their budgets to him by today, is at the top of that list. He's responsible for the Bureau of Health, which is widely believed to be the most wasteful and patronage-laden county department. He needs to set an example and present his plan for a streamlined and efficient health-care system. And everyone else needs to recognize that the county's days of high living are over, and austerity should now rule.

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