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John Daley and the truth

Monday, October 01, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Sept. 5, 2002: The Cook County Board, meeting as overseers of the county's scandal-plagued forest preserves, confronts its own failure to rein in gross financial mismanagement. "We've known it," a contrite John Daley tells a large but hushed crowd, "and we haven't done jack." The statement strikes everyone in the board room as frank, humble -- and impossible to contest.

Oct. 1, 2007: County Board members, some of whom foolishly think they've right-sized this featherbedded government, meet to discuss raising the county's share of the sales tax from .75 percent to 2.75 percent. Backers of this regressive idea, which would hit poor people hardest, want taxpayers to focus on its outlandishness: an increase that would yield $750 million in new money. They think they might look reasonable, even frugal, if they settle on less than 2 percent.

No voice in the room Monday can be more influential than John Daley's. As in 2002, he needs to be the grown-up. He needs to acknowledge that a well-spent $3 billion is enough money to run this government in the 21st Century. That means jettisoning its 19th Century organization chart, its 20th Century technology and its ageless legacy of governance by cronyism.
Will Daley again be frank, humble and truthful? Or will he, as chairman of the board's Finance Committee, enable a 2008 tax increase by echoing board President Todd Stroger's ridiculous mantra: that the county needs more money?

Daley isn't as much the insider under Todd Stroger as he was under Stroger's father, John. But Daley is the most widely respected board member -- and not just because he has a brother named Richard who also holds a public post.

John Daley understands that this government needs modernizing. He can insist that board members not consider any tax increase until they do what Stroger didn't do this year: shrink the bureaucracy to a size taxpayers can afford. The alternative: one or more tax hikes that will undermine businesses and force citizens to dig deeper than many of them can.

Daley can speak truth to old-style Democrats who love to yammer about noble county missions, but haven't done the grunt work of consolidating and streamlining operations. Why haven't they streamlined? Because doing so would imperil their most treasured asset: the county payroll, larded with sisters-in-law and ward heelers and nephews.

Some payroll too. Over the past decade, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis calculator, the Consumer Price Index has risen 28 percent: What cost $10.00 in 1997 now costs $12.80. Yet, according to county Treasurer Maria Pappas, salary increases already approved by the board will have boosted county wages by 67 percent to 77 percent -- the percentage varies by pay grade -- from fiscal 1998 to fiscal 2008. Can you say the same for your salary?

Yes, the board handed out lots of fat raises. What it hasn't done -- unlike many private firms -- is demand that its huge technology investments substantially reduce head count.

Pappas has been a tiger for new technology: Since taking office in 1998, she has improved public access to financial information while reducing her office's head count from 258 to 124.

But that's not the Cook County way. Officials instead tend to project a shortfall for the next year (in this case, $307 million), then try to stick taxpayers with the bill. The unfortunate difference this time is that Todd Stroger hasn't even bothered to propose a budget before he tries to raise tax revenues by the hundreds of millions.

John Daley knows how shoddy and embarrassing that is. What other unit of government expects so much blind faith from the public, yet deserves so little given its wasteful ways?

Stroger probably figures he has nine votes on the 17-member board for a tax hike of some sort: William Beavers, Jerry Butler, Earlean Collins, Roberto Maldonado, Joseph Mario Moreno, Joan Patricia Murphy, Deborah Sims, Robert Steele -- and John Daley.

We hope Mr. Daley doesn't play the patsy for a tax increase this government hasn't earned. Better he talks honestly to his colleagues, as he did in 2002. The alternative: This year's Cook County -- with all the Stroger friends and family members in place -- at next year's inflated price.

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