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How to avoid Stroger's taxes

Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Digg Facebook Fark Google Newsvine Reddit Yahoo Print Single page view Reprints Post Comment Text size: You have to marvel at the hubris of Todd Stroger's handlers: They want to raise tax rates so high now that the rookie Cook County Board president won't have to ask for more new revenue until well after he runs for re-election in 2010. Trouble is, there's no need for one penny of Stroger's proposed hikes -- including a 2-percentage-point sales tax increase that would hit the poor the hardest. A year ago, Stroger took a "solemn oath" to streamline county government. Yet he squandered countless reform opportunities in 2007, so you're supposed to pay for his neglect in 2008 and beyond. He wants close to $900 million a year in new tax revenue. *** Stroger has seven reliable votes for his taxing spree. He desperately needs swing board members Earlean Collins (312-603-4566 and 773-626-2184) and Roberto Maldonado (312-603-6386 and 773-395-0143) to align this week with him. Stroger's budgeteers say Cook County faces a shortfall of $238 million in 2008. The county has a history of inflating "shortfalls" to justify tax hikes. But let's take them at their word. Let's say they need $238 million to balance the budget. So how can we save that money, instead of forcing county residents to pay up? This page has asked board opponents of Stroger's taxes to offer alternatives, and some of them have responded. The most detailed plan comes from Commissioner Michael Quigley and his chief of staff Kimberly Walz, who for seven years have produced solid reports on how to reinvent county government. Quigley says some of his trims for 2008 can't remain cut in future years. But the goal here is to get through 2008 without tax hikes -- and then use the year to do the streamlining Stroger promised but notoriously failed to deliver. The beauty of this is that it would lead to a slimmer, more responsive bureaucracy by 2009 -- eliminating any need for new taxes then. Quigley's proposals for '08: - Cut 35 percent of Stroger's requested capital equipment spending (new office furnishings and equipment, vehicles, telecom purchases, computers, etc.): $26.9 million. - Cut 30 percent of overtime: $11.6 million. - Cut 30 percent of expenses for consultants: $18.6 million. - Sell surplus land held by Oak Forest Hospital and the Highway Department: an estimated $40 million. - Increase from 2 percent to 5 percent the "holdback" that county departments are budgeted but don't receive -- a form of enforced saving. This would be offset by more cross-training of workers who could shift from office to office during peak periods of tax collection, tax appeals, real estate transfers, elections and so on: $65 million. So far, that's $162 million saved. Board member Larry Suffredin would more than erase the remainder by: - Giving Stroger only half of the 1,130 new hires he wants -- basically, those needed to comply with court orders. Savings: $30 million. - Restructuring the county's debt. Suffredin's research with outside financial specialists suggests annual savings of perhaps $60 million. So: Between them, Quigley and Suffredin offer about $250 million in savings to more than cover Stroger's avowed $238 million shortfall. If one of their ideas isn't workable, so be it. The point is, there's lots of low-hanging fruit. *** All through 2007, Stroger's allies didn't hold him to his "solemn oath." Many of them figured budgeting for 2008 would be like the good old days: They'd harrumph and whine about how impossible it is to cut Stroger's $3 billion-plus budget -- and in the end they'd get their way. Maybe they will. But county government has been inexorably approaching this bitter showdown for several years. A steadily more emboldened County Board has forced some budget cuts, and deflected some tax increases. Now, commissioners Earlean Collins and Roberto Maldonado will decide whether taxpayers get an efficient government that provides better service. The way to achieve that is to stop the tax hikes now -- and use 2008 to reinvent Cook County.

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