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  Last year more people used the County's forest preserves than visited Yellowstone National Park.

Despite tax hikes, Cook chief plans to spend more
Stroger set to listen -- and to spend big

Friday, October 19, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo and Gary Washburn

As he asked taxpayers for more money this week, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger portrayed his government as a lean operation that has cut costs to the bone.

But Stroger failed to mention he's recommending spending 27 percent more on commissioners and their staffs, a move that would cost nearly $1.8 million a year.

County Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) said it's clear Stroger's budget contains excess spending.
"He's trying to induce some of the commissioners with some sweeteners, but I don't think it's going to work," Peraica said. "The whole thing is ridiculous."

As part of cost-cutting earlier this year, some commissioners laid off staff or forced them to take unpaid days off. Peraica closed a district office.

Stroger now proposes to give each commissioner's office a lump sum to avoid uneven treatment in the future. But that lump sum represents a healthy jump.

For Peraica, who had the lowest-funded office this year, it would mean a 34 percent increase in funding. He said he wouldn't accept such a hike.

Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), chairman of the Finance Committee, said the budgets of all the elected officials, including board members, will be scrutinized.

"Everything should be looked at," said Daley, who will preside over public hearings starting Monday.

Stroger wants commissioners to triple the county sales tax and double the gas and parking taxes as part of a $3.2 billion county budget that also would add 1,130 workers to the payroll. He would increase spending on health care by 9.4 percent while keeping public safety spending virtually flat.

Stroger's proposals come as Mayor Richard Daley also is looking to raise taxes in Chicago. Both the county and the city have a process for allowing citizens and other interested parties to make their voices heard.

Taxpayers who want to sound off on the city's proposed $5.9 billion budget and the $293 million in tax, fee and fine increases it contains, should mark Oct. 31 on their calendars. That will be the one and only chance to speak at a public hearing. The county will provide four opportunities -- at hearings scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 26 and 30, and Nov. 6.

During the last budget cycle, when major spending cuts and layoffs were imposed, overflow crowds of county workers and union members jammed the hearings, which ran for hours.

This year, with Stroger recommending big increases in the sales, gasoline and parking taxes, whole other sets of constituencies are expected to turn out to complain.

To accommodate anticipated crowds, the first hearing has been scheduled for a large venue, the auditorium in Oak Forest Hospital.

In the meantime, members of the public are free to attend as aldermen and county commissioners conduct hearings of their own, grilling department heads and other officials about their spending plans.

Hearings by the council's Budget Committee began Monday, when aldermen grumped and harrumphed at Daley's proposal to raise the property tax levy by $108 million, and they are scheduled to continue every weekday through Oct. 26. The council chamber is on the second floor of City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

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