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Stroger Goggles

Thursday, October 18, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Should citizens entrust $890 million a year in new tax revenues to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger? Put on a pair of Stroger Goggles, which distort reality, and you'll see what he sees -- a government that he says has achieved "enormous operational efficiencies" and adopted "modern business practices."

But if the Stroger Goggles slip off your nose, here's the tomfoolery you'll see instead:

- A board president who claims tremendous credit for cutting some 1,440 jobs in the last year now wants to add 1,130 new jobs in 2008. Stroger's campaign pledge to cut county employment to 22,000 workers? His budget would fatten the county payroll to 24,836. Stroger's promised economizing is headed in the wrong direction.
- An administration too timid to tell other elected county officials that no, they can't have still more money. And too timid to move employees from underworked departments -- example: the real estate slump has recorder's employees twiddling thumbs -- to departments that might need more help. Stroger's baffling solution: Give everybody new employees! (Warning: Don't propose a stunt this reckless and wasteful at your workplace.)

- A president who, two weeks ago, was rebuffed by the County Board in his attempt to hike the sales tax by 2 percentage points -- enough to raise $750 million a year -- is back for more: He still wants the $750 million -- and he also wants $140 million a year by doubling gasoline and parking taxes. He can't rush his tax hikes in place fast enough to collect all that money in 2008. But it'll all be there in 2009. Relax, he says -- he might cut some of those taxes for 2009 if the county decides it's collecting too much money. Care to bet on the likelihood of this government cutting taxes?

- A government still structured for the 19th Century, with redundancies Stroger didn't work to eliminate in his first year as president. Cook County tries to do too many things for too many interests. Economic development, affordable housing, highway maintenance -- all good. But why is Cook County forever taking on new missions but never sunsetting those that other governments, or private interests, can best deliver?

- An oblivious leadership that sees only its desires -- mostly its desires to placate Democratic bosses and public employees unions. Consider: One day before Stroger calls for more millions and more employees, DuPage County issues a proposed budget that calls for laying off 10.6 percent of its workforce -- and cutting spending by about 16.5 percent. That's painful -- but it acknowledges that taxpayers can afford only so much government. Ask yourself: Which of these counties apparently sees that Illinois citizens are facing a cascade of tax hike proposals from multiple levels of government? And which county is clueless?

- A county government that would grow its budget by more than $200 million next year, to an astonishing $3.2 billion. Taxpayers evidently are supposed to be grateful for those "enormous" efficiencies -- without which Stroger would want even more.

Todd Stroger is reckless and clueless. The Cook County Board must do what Stroger is unwilling and incapable of doing.

Board member Michael Quigley put it succinctly after Stroger spoke: "The price of patronage, of corruption, of inefficiency, has come due, and Cook County can't ask taxpayers to pay that bill. This government has never evolved, never streamlined. Until that happens, the public is right to be upset."

Stroger says he's not hearing from upset people. Apparently he can't see them through his Stroger Goggles. If you're not happy with his $890 million a year tax grab, let him know. His phone number is 312-603-6400.

Our hope, first stated in this space Oct. 2, is that the 17 commissioners will go through Stroger's proposed budget and give citizens a positive agenda: 10 Ways to Prevent a Tax Increase. Cook County government has no business asking for one penny in new taxes until it sensibly reallocates the huge resources it already has -- and settles on a mission taxpayers can afford. In the meantime, let's all keep our Stroger Goggles in a drawer.

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