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Let the budget games begin

Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times

The three budget volumes run to 1,200 pages, and it'll be days if not weeks before all their implications emerge. But at first glance, the 2007 budget proposed Tuesday by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger tries to do what his father, John, didn't do when he occupied that chair. Todd Stroger proposes to give county officials far fewer dollars than they want--and then force them to meet those smaller numbers.

You could see how deeply that notion threatens Cook County's culture of spending entitlement by studying the grimaces of officials listening to Stroger's budget address. Assessor James Houlihan, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, State's Atty. Richard Devine--Stroger essentially wants to make them and other managers give taxpayers less costly and better services.
Stroger has proposed what he had promised: a $3 billion budget without a tax increase. His budget would offset a projected $502 million shortfall not with across-the-board cuts, but with a combination of five factors: actual spending cuts, limits on future expense growth, debt restructuring, higher hospital revenues, and elimination of a deficit carried over from 2006.

Not all of the economies are clear: The budget anticipates cuts to be named later--so-called "targeted adjustments"--much as any of us might vaguely declare that we'll lose 20 pounds this year without saying how. And while the budget would trim the county workforce by about 1,500 (to 24,000), two-thirds of the positions eliminated are, in fact, now vacant. Still, in the words of Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, "Todd Stroger is signaling an end to Cook County government as an employment service. By giving county officials less money, he's forcing them to decide, `What are my real priorities?'"

Of course, many officials' priorities are politics, patronage and contracts for pals. Those officials, and their upset workers, already are lobbying County Board members to amend Stroger's economizing into oblivion in the six weeks before the board must adopt an '07 budget. That lobbying has its ugly side--including one reported death threat against a county official.

Expect the alarmists to sow public panic that less spending will embolden criminals or cripple health care for the poor. On Tuesday, though, Dr. Robert Simon, the county's top health officer, asserted that some of the scarifying is mistaken. Example: The county intends to close 16 of its 26 clinics--some of which, he said, serve few patients. Simon predicted initially longer lines at remaining clinics as patients and medical resources shift. But he said that those surviving clinics can absorb all of the displaced patients--and offer them longer hours of medical services.

County Board members can evaluate that assertion--just as they should ask to what extent Cook taxpayers are subsidizing medical care for patients from other counties, states and nations. County medical staffers justifiably pride themselves on treating anyone who needs care. Still, Cook County residents deserve to know the true cost of their medical generosity--something no one has wanted to calculate. "The culture in our health system has been, `It's all free,'" says board member Gregg Goslin, "so nobody wants to ask a patient, `Where are you from?'"

So, let the budget games begin. Some county officials will battle patronage cuts. Others may try to justify more spending by claiming, foolishly, that the county should hype its revenue estimates. Warning: Budget trickery often backfires.

For now we'll reserve final judgment on Stroger's '07 budget plan. But we applaud his efforts--and his pledge to soon convene a public-private summit to produce "an even more rigorous" budget for 2008.

For too long, Cook County government has reached beyond its core missions--and resisted proposals to consolidate offices and streamline its workforce. The county's elected officials now have a choice: They can stop grimacing and aggressively manage that revolution--or they can step aside and make way for leaders who will.

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