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Judge Stroger by his budget

Thursday, January 04, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Faced with a $500 million shortfall in a $3 billion budget, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger has told the managers around him to envision a smaller county government. Specifically, he's asked all county officials (himself included) to cut their 2007 spending requests by 17 percent--the size of the total budget hole that Stroger says he won't plug with tax hikes.

So far, so good. Todd Stroger is subjecting county bosses to a superb exercise that never occurred when his father, John, sat in the board president's chair. In those years, county officials got most of whatever padded budgets they requested--and John Stroger's pet County Board told taxpayers to pick up the tab. Todd Stroger instead wants county managers to tell him what a downsized government would look like--just as many managers in the private sector must do when spending is high or revenues are slack.
What's Stroger's motive? The County Building has no shortage of mind readers:

- Some insiders think that, later this month, Stroger will impose across-the-board cuts that don't differentiate between shoddily run departments and the few that have economized.

- Others suspect he's gaming the public, asking for potential cuts so he can declare them too onerous to make. That would be a prelude to breaking his word and proposing tax hikes.

- Still others argue that Stroger and his finance team are doing the right thing, evaluating every department and drafting a budget that hits some offices harder than others.

We'll know which of these motives (or some other) drives Stroger when he proposes his budget. That document--not his or anyone else's words--will show whether he truly wants to streamline this flabby government and improve the services it offers.

How are county officials reacting to Stroger's 17 percent request? Some have resorted shamelessly to scare-mongering: Cut my precious budget and crime will skyrocket! Our justice system will grind to a halt!

Most county officials know where a $500 million guillotine should fall: on every departmental budget but theirs. Many of them are only pols; as managers, they're failures.

What most of them didn't anticipate, though, was a defection from their ranks. You could almost hear their squeaks of anguish when Public Defender Edwin Burnette said yes, he can reduce his budget by 17 percent. Like Treasurer Maria Pappas before him, Burnette acknowledges he can find creative ways to do his job without squeezing still more dollars out of taxpayers.

A 17 percent cut may not be right for every office. But for a government facing a projected 17 percent shortfall, it's the right place to take the discussion. Any official who resists Stroger's efforts should explain right now--loudly and clearly--why he or she wants a tax increase.

County Board member Forrest Claypool derides Stroger's call for 17 percent reductions as "budget cutting for dummies." We can't improve on the retort from fellow board member Michael Quigley: "We look grossly hypocritical if Stroger says `No new taxes' and we criticize his pressure on the other elected officials. They're like bratty children who've never been told `No.'"

Across-the-board planning is no substitute for a lengthy structural reform of the mess Stroger inherited. But the time to praise or knock his first budget is when he issues it, and all of us can see whether he keeps his word to hold spending and taxes in check. Fairness dictates that he be allowed to negotiate and draft a budget that tries to make a slovenly government more efficient.

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