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Officials offer up dueling budgets

Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Dueling proposals for overhauling Cook County's 2007 budget likely will square off next week, as Board President Todd Stroger and a bipartisan group of county commissioners each announced millions in proposed amendments late Tuesday.

Stroger, adding to previous promised changes, said he would restore $25 million in health services and law enforcement that he slashed in his original proposal.

That includes saving the Woody Winston Clinic in Phoenix and the suburban Access to Care program that connects uninsured people with private doctors.

Just how Stroger will pay for all this isn't clear. Spokesman Steve Mayberry could account for only about $19 million of the proposal, all of it from measures the county has taken in recent days. He said details on the rest would be available by the end of the week.

"Despite the unwillingness of some to come to the table, my amendments are a reflection of what I believe is the restoration of vital, necessary programs and services," Stroger said in a statement.

The last-minute announcement, which came just after the deadline for proposing budget amendments, surprised commissioners who thought Stroger had promised to let commissioners shape the final budget.

"He's trying to spend any revenue we find before we have a chance to allocate it," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston). "We took the president at his word when he said, 'My work's done, and it's now up to the board of commissioners,' so that's what we're doing now."

Suffredin -- along with commissioners Robert Steele (D-Chicago), Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) and Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park) -- said they would present an "alternative balanced budget plan" today.

Suffredin's news conference was arranged by one of the county's biggest unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME sued Cook County on Tuesday, saying Stroger's plan to cut public defenders to four paid days per week was a violation of their contract.

Stroger's announcement may defuse the lawsuit because he said he would restore cuts to the public defender's office and boost pay for assistant state's attorneys who had complained that their salaries lagged behind those of public defenders. AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said the union would drop the lawsuit if Stroger rescinded the cuts.

Suffredin said his group's plan also would help public defenders and do many of the same things as Stroger's proposal, but commissioners do not agree with Stroger on everything. Mayberry promised a fight if commissioners try to alter Stroger's plan.

"It is the administration's position that these are the programs to keep," Mayberry said. "We'd be opposed to anything counter to that."

Other commissioners worked frantically to propose their own budget amendments, many of them designed to tackle the same things.

Higher property taxes, higher sales taxes, higher taxes on alcohol, a new tax on hotel stays and hundreds of administrative cuts are just some of the money-making proposals.

The most dramatic tax proposal came from Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago), who wants to more than double the county's sales tax from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent.

Although the revenue department had not yet provided Sims with an official estimate Tuesday, such an increase could bring in more than $400 million in new revenue, wiping out the county's entire budget deficit and making all of Stroger's proposed cuts unnecessary.

"They say there's going to be lots of (last-minute) floor amendments, too, so I don't know what's going to happen," said Commissioner Jerry Butler (D-Chicago). "This is going to be a crazy one."



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