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Maria Pappas' surprise

Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Chicago Tribune

As Cook County Board members gather Wednesday to mull tax increases, county Treasurer Maria Pappas has a sweet surprise for them: millions of dollars in bonus revenue that she already has collected thanks to sheer imagination -- the kind of imagination Cook County has to exhibit before it asks taxpayers for one more penny.

Pappas is the pariah that other county executives love to loathe. She relentlessly modernizes and downsizes. Since she took office in 1998, she has reduced her employee head count from 258 to 131. Her total budget, including a terrific automation group that did not exist back then, is lower than it was when she arrived.

Pappas will tell the board that the fees she is now generating will cover a good 60 percent of what it costs to run her office. Pending a ruling from the state's attorney that it is legal for her to allocate the money, she will slash the amount she requests from the County Board -- from taxpayers, really -- by a corresponding $7 million.
And while board members debate Wednesday whether to further gouge those taxpayers, Pappas is embarking on a 10-year modernization to cut more costs, raise more revenues -- and improve online access to more information.

Many other county bosses have been on the public dole for so long they are frightened by even mild versions of the cost-cutting challenges that most private-sector managers have faced for many years. Pappas, by contrast, eliminates personnel expenses the other officials fight to keep.

The bonus revenue she will deliver comes from new fees she charges mortgage companies for online access to property-tax bills and for her office's processing costs when the companies mistakenly double-pay those bills out of escrow accounts.

Next on her agenda: Automating the county's annual tax sale and cutting its duration from 20 to 2 days; creating 20-year tax histories for every parcel in the county, a trove she will share with private-sector companies for a fee; and a decade-consuming automation of the obsolete warrant book system for recording tax payments.

Boring stuff -- but lucrative for taxpayers.

Why the County Board does not demand similar creativity and innovation from other officials is not a mystery: It is clubbier to make nice, approve their ever-flabbier budget requests -- and stick taxpayers with the tab.

Thanks, Maria. May the County Board learn.

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