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County budget may see changes

Sunday, January 28, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

The deep cuts to health care and law enforcement in Todd Stroger's proposed 2007 Cook County budget are almost certain to change.
But who will make those changes and how is uncharted territory.
County commissioners say they now are convinced there must be significant changes to the board president's budget proposal. They're getting swamped with hundreds of calls and have seen thousands protesting the closure of clinics.
But Stroger has made it clear it's up to the board to make any changes.
"There's no way that this -- is the way the budget is going to go forward," said Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-Chicago). "The president presented a budget. Now he doesn't show up, he doesn't want to talk about it. That's his right."
Stroger's predecessor and father, John Stroger, angrily opposed tinkering with his budget proposals and threatened vetoes if commissioners amended it too much.
"In the past, these budget hearings were like pep rallies," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston). "What we've got right now are real legislative hearings. It's forcing commissioners to make decisions they've never had to make before."
Although Todd Stroger fulfilled his campaign promise of proposing a budget that did not increase taxes, several commissioners have begun talking about boosting taxes or finding other revenue to restore some services.
Stroger has told the board -- directly and through top aides -- he will accept all but the most irresponsible changes to the budget and will not veto a tax increase, commissioners said. Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said he couldn't confirm or deny such a promise.
With Commissioner William Beavers holding his father's old seat on the board, Stroger will not have to vote on any tax increase that comes to the floor.
With the exception of some possible small changes in Stroger's proposal for the bureau of health that might be announced this week, the budget is in the board's hands, Mayberry said.
"We're not trying to usurp anyone's authority as a commissioner," Mayberry said. "Commissioners should definitely put forth their own amendments."
Commissioner Mike Quigley said this leaves the board trying to work together to find a solution without a clear leader to dictate policy.
"We're going to have to do it through consensus, and I think we can do it," Quigley said.
Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) said commissioners already are staking out territory on different issues.
"You heard Pete Silvestri talking (Friday) about amendments for the state's attorney's office," Murphy said. "We'll probably all go along with that."
Silvestri's proposal, endorsed by several commissioners, is to spread around some of the new revenue proposed by some of the separately elected county officials.
Traditionally, officials have been allowed to offer the board new revenue in lieu of cuts, a trick that has infuriated officials such as the sheriff and state's attorney who have little power to raise money.
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown proposed $10 million in new revenue for 2007 by increasing fees, and therefore was spared from having to make $10 million in cuts.
Brown is one of the few officials who doesn't have to lay off anyone in the 2007 budget, relying instead on cutting vacant positions and furlough days. Silvestri's proposal would force her to cut further.
"If the $10 million generated is better used on prosecutors than clerks, we have the right to make that choice as a board," Silvestri said.
Suffredin said proposals like that, and other revenue items, may be the key to preventing some of the deepest cuts.
"Ultimately, we're going to see the whole budget rewritten," Suffredin said.
He predicts some uneasy and unusual alliances among the often fractious commissioners. Murphy said the need for innovative solutions may lead her to work with commissioners she hasn't agreed with in the past, such as Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago).
Claypool, who ran for county president on a promise to cut fat from the budget, was on the attack Friday. Without his nemesis, John Stroger, to shout down his suggestions, Claypool's proposals for major changes in county government may get further this time around.
"I am personally, and I think increasingly others are on this board as well, mystified that in a budget of 27,000 employees -- most of whom are pushing paper around, almost all of the cuts President Stroger is suggesting fall on front-line workers," Claypool said.


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