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Now, streamline Cook County

Sunday, February 25, 2007
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

As Thursday night lurched into Friday, the 17 members of the Cook County Board argued a refreshing question: Which of two proposals would best start to downsize their bloated government? They bobbed in their blue leather chairs until 2:30 a.m., finally passing a $3 billion budget for 2007. They cut more than 1,200 jobs, plus more than 400 open positions, from a patronage-rich roster of 25,000 slots.
 
That's a step--if only a small step--toward a massive restructuring and consolidation that now can begin in earnest. The budget plan that prevailed leaves too many politically connected middle managers safe in their sinecures while doctors and nurses are getting pink slips.
 
In the weeks before the vote, Board President Todd Stroger alienated many commissioners by larding his staff with high-paid friends and family members In the end, though, Stroger managed to peel away five of the 12 original co-sponsors of a rival plan that would have cut deeper into his bureaucracy.
 
That rival plan wasn't ideal: It would have retained too many unnecessary jobs that union leaders demanded, and preserved more public health clinics than patient counts justify. Stroger's allies also said the rival plan wasn't as reform-minded as its proponents characterized it.
 
Three suburban Republicans--Liz Doody Gorman, Gregg Goslin and Peter Silvestri--met several times with Stroger's team and eventually voted for his budget package. This led to the intriguing sight of Gorman--the Cook County GOP's new chair--voting with Goslin and Silvestri to help Stroger and board finance chair John Daley protect what administration critics portray as layers of Democratic flab.
 
Equally startling: Michael Quigley, the board member with the longest record of genuine reform efforts, also voting with Stroger. Quigley said Stroger's final package met his criteria of a budget that starts cutting overhead expenses and doesn't raise taxes. Quigley had worked with customary allies to improve the plan they had co-sponsored. But Quigley ultimately decided that their budget proposal didn't balance and overly acceded to union lobbying by not consolidating costly health clinics. In effect he's playing a long game: "I take it on extraordinary faith that this is the beginning" of a dramatic reinvention of county government on Stroger's watch.
 
Will that faith be rewarded? At 1:15 a.m. Friday, Stroger stood in a County Building hallway, pledging anew to convene a summit of civic and business leaders to help reorganize county government. He can't move too fast: The county needs a much leaner architecture for the 2008 fiscal year that begins Dec. 1--barely nine months from now. Already, several board Democrats are making noises about a need for higher taxes next year. Witness one board member, Deborah Sims, telling her colleagues during the budget debate: "I don't know what the big fear is to raise taxes."
 
Gorman, Goslin, Silvestri, Quigley and the fifth defector, Democrat Robert Steele, have a debt to collect from Stroger. If he doesn't make good on his promises to streamline this costly government--if those leftover layers of Democratic flab don't melt in a rapid restructuring--it will be clear that the five got rolled.
 
Because of this year's budget fight, a terrible thing has happened to the do-littles in Cook County government: More board members now have line-item familiarity with the patronage pits where Chicago ward bosses have been stashing their political workers for decades. Stroger, who said in his 2006 campaign that the county workforce should be 22,000, and his budget allies still need to get this government down to size.


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