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John Stroger, man of mystery

Friday, January 07, 2005
Chicago Tribune

You have to wonder why Cook County Board President John Stroger would do this to himself--and to his political allies on the board who'll have to stand for re-election.

Why would Stroger ask those allies to vote for tax increases when the county has ample opportunities to slash expenses, not take more from taxpayers? Why would he rig those tax increases not just to raise revenues for 2005, but also to quietly lock in even bigger revenue grabs for 2006? Above all, why would Stroger propose a budget that even he doesn't pretend includes the massive structural reforms that this most inefficient of local governments so desperately needs?

Stroger's proposed $3.05 billion budget is indefensible--as will be any board member's vote in favor of its bizarre components:

- Stroger wants new 2 percent taxes on hotels and restaurant meals. This as Chicago risks losing more convention business because of the high cost of staging big gatherings here. He'd rather seek those taxes than trim Cook County's bloated expenditures by a mere 2.5 percent.

- He wants to portray those measures as a $73 million tax increase to close a shortfall in this year's budget--and that they are. But that figure is misleading because the taxes will be in effect for only part of the fiscal year that started Dec. 1. When those tax boosts are collected on a full-year basis, for all of 2006, they'll generate $124 million a year.

- He wants even more. He is asking Springfield for legal authority to put new taxes on cell phones, pagers and other telecommunications devices. Asked Thursday if Cook County provides any services whatsoever to citizens who own those devices, Stroger replied with unguarded candor: "We would like to get their money from a tax." No, that was not meant to be humorous. He was dead serious.

That's what it's all about at Cook County: We would like to get your money. The proposed budget doesn't include a more economical executive pay plan, which Stroger promised in October of 2003. In fact, when asked what mergers of offices, consolidations of duties or other structural reforms his budget includes, Stroger said nothing.

A year ago, Stroger passed a budget by getting nine of the County Board's 17 members to approve a cigarette tax increase. Some of those nine broke vows they had made not to vote for higher taxes until the county had economized.

Joan Patricia Murphy, who has been a huge disappointment since being elected to the board in 2002, voted for Stroger's last tax hike. So did Roberto Maldonado, who fancies himself as Stroger's successor. Maldonado has carried water for Stroger for years--usually at the severe expense of county taxpayers. Deborah Sims also voted for the cigarette tax hike Cook County didn't need; her tax-and-spend record should leave her--like Murphy--vulnerable in next year's election.

So it will be fascinating to see who wants to walk the plank for Stroger's tax increases this year. Board members whose records are more responsible than those of Murphy, Maldonado, Sims & Co. are preparing suggestions that would balance the budget with no tax hikes whatsoever.

That's a step, but only a step, toward the massive restructuring, and downsizing, that Cook County government owes to taxpayers.

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