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Hold line on taxes, cut 'exempt' jobs, consolidate clinics

Thursday, February 22, 2007
Daily Southtown

The issue: County board and President Todd Stroger still are at odds over the $3 billion budget and $500 million deficit.

We say: The board must hold the line on taxes, cut a significant number of political appointees and close underused health clinics; patients should be sent to the remaining facilities.

As members of the Cook County Board prepare to vote, possibly as soon as today, on the 2007 budget, they need to focus on a few basic principles.

First, there is no room for a tax increase of any kind. On Monday, the board voted down proposals for new taxes on meals in restaurants, on hotel rooms and on alcoholic beverages. Good for the board.

But the same board voted 10 to 5 Wednesday to create a tax on excessive sulfur dioxide emissions that would go into effect in 2008. In our view, the county should not even think about new taxes or tax increases before making significant, demonstrable cuts in patronage and waste. County board President Todd Stroger said Wednesday he may veto the sulfur dioxide tax; we urge Stroger to do so.

We also urge Stroger and the board to reverse its decision to transfer $13 million in property tax receipts from the forest preserve budget to the county budget. That money came from tax increases by the forest preserve board, which is made up of the same commissioners as the county board. In other words, the commissioners have raised property taxes to fund the county budget. They should rescind that transfer and, since the forest preserve district doesn't need the money, they should rebate it to the taxpayers.

Second, the board and Stroger are at odds over the county's health clinics. Stroger wants to close 13 of the county's 26 clinics, which he says serve in total only 5 percent of the system's 740,000 clients. His adversaries on the board (and a number of politicians outside county government) want to keep all the clinics open to show their support for health care services. We believe Stroger's position on these clinics is the responsible one; only a relative handful of patients each day are using the clinics targeted for closing, and those patients can be served less expensively -- but no less effectively -- by directing them to the other clinic locations. We believe the county must preserve health services, but that doesn't mean the services have to be offered in precisely the same locations forever. Consolidating some of the clinics should cut costs without cutting services.

One more general point: Stroger needs to do more to cut the ranks of the so-called "at-will" Shakman-exempt employees -- otherwise known as political appointees or, to some, patronage workers. So far Stroger says he's eliminated about 20 such workers from his administrative staff and another 14 to 16 from the health bureau. He needs to do far better than that. In January, Stroger said he had letters of resignation from all of the approximately 500 Shakman-exempt workers, and would begin culling those who don't pull their weight. He needs to reduce that number significantly. If Stroger won't do it, every member of the county board should start poring over the employee list to identify the "at-will" employees whom the taxpayers can live without.

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