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Budget showdown comes this week

Sunday, February 18, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

The Cook County Board is wrestling with overlapping budget proposals and a last-minute hunt for new money while the clock ticks away on an end-of-the-month deadline.
The budget must pass by Feb. 28 according to state law or the county can't pay bills. But the board doesn't have a deal in place yet, after board President Todd Stroger threatened Friday to veto a $73 million budget overhaul proposed by 12 commissioners.
After the Presidents Day holiday Monday, the county board likely will meet every day as Stroger and the board try to avert a looming showdown over their budget plans.
"It's very late in a high-stakes game to play a brinkmanship role," said Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago). "We have enough time to come to a reasonable compromise if we avoid these extreme tactics."
As the board considers dozens of proposed changes already on the table, new wrinkles are emerging.
New taxes on restaurants, alcohol and hotels were added to the agenda for discussion this week. And Gov. Rod Blagojevich might be offering a last-minute bailout worth up to $60 million. The governor's deputy sent a letter to the county Thursday that some commissioners see as a potential gold mine and others see as an empty promise.
The county board meets about new revenue possibilities Tuesday; has its regular meeting Wednesday; and a meeting Thursday to approve the $3 billion budget is expected by many to spill into Friday or beyond.
As originally proposed, the budget would make deep cuts to law enforcement and health services.
But it's certain now that some or most of those cuts will be avoided. What's unknown is just what will be saved, how and who will get credit for it. Stroger has proposed his own budget amendment that clashes with a proposal from a bipartisan coalition of 12 commissioners.
Stroger publicly promised to veto the commissioners' proposal if it passed as written. He said the proposed cuts to administrative positions would "decimate" county government and their plan to keep all 26 county health clinics open is unreasonable because some of them are not cost efficient and barely used. Stroger proposes keeping open 12 clinics, including all three in the south suburbs.
Quigley and other commissioners said Stroger was much more open to compromise in private meetings later Friday.
"By next Thursday I would hope there would be a compromise," said finance committee chairman John Daley (D-Chicago). "I don't think people are that venomous on both sides."
While architects of the commissioners' proposal insist their political coalition is holding strong, some members are already breaking away.
Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood), who signed on to the proposal as co-sponsor, said she thinks commissioners need to compromise with Stroger.
"I'm not going to go for our -- amendment as it is, we've decimated some departments totally," Murphy said. "I signed on -- because I believe in a lot of it and the president hasn't gone far enough."
Commissioner Gregg Goslin (R-Glenview), another co-sponsor, similarly said he didn't back all of it. Neither Goslin nor Murphy formally has pulled their name from the proposal.
New items are likely to further complicate things.
Commissioners have a slew of new tax and fee proposals up for discussion Tuesday, including a 2 percent tax on restaurant bills; a 2 percent tax on hotel stays; a tax on heavy industrial polluters; increased fees for building inspections and liquor licenses; and a higher sales tax on booze.
This is the first time many of the proposed tax increases have been put in writing, Daley said. He's not sure any of the proposals could go through the legally required hearing process before the budget deadline Feb. 28.
"I don't know what the sponsors of those (tax proposals) intend," Daley said. "There's no time."
Quigley was urging Stroger to go after a possible last-minute offer of cash from Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office.
The Feb. 15 letter says that the state would consider buying 200 acres of unused land around Oak Forest Hospital.
"Subject to appraised value, the state could advance $30 to $60 million to the county to help bridge the funding gap," the letter said.
Blagojevich's office did not return a request for comment.
Daley and Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said the state's letter is not a serious offer.
"The letter is neither under the signature of the governor, nor does it address the county's immediate financial need," Mayberry said. "We certainly hoped that by now we could do more."


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