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The 17% charade

Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Everybody knows that the poor, put-upon elected officials of Cook County had to cut their budgets by 17 percent for 2007. Everybody knows this in part because many of those officials nobly tell anyone who'll listen -- in speeches, interviews and broadcast appearances -- that Board President Todd Stroger asked them to lower their spending by 17 percent. What heroes. Except that the heroes often don't tell the rest of the story: In many cases, they didn't really cut their budgets by 17 percent. Some officials may again try to exploit the 17 percent charade Wednesday, when they're scheduled to discuss possible cuts of 10 percent for 2008. Expect to hear them whine about those 2007 cuts -- followed by their blustery resistance to doing what mere taxpayers have to do whenever their income falls short of the amount of money they need: reduce spending. The true story of the 17 percent started to unfold last week. The county's budget director distributed a report on actual budget cuts for 2007. The report startled several board members who dutifully had cut 17 percent from their own office expenditures -- and assumed everyone else in county government had done the same. Not so. Example: Employees at the county's Bureau of Health -- many of them patronage hires -- frequently bemoan the 17 percent savaging they supposedly endured. Except the real spending reduction was only 10.8 percent. Stroger now proposes to raise health spending by 11.2 percent in 2008 -- to $831 million, a total higher than the 2006 appropriation. You may believe that's not enough money -- but it's no savaging. Other spending cuts for 2007: Assessor: 12.8 percent. Board of Review: 7.8 percent. Treasurer: 8.3 percent. Recorder: 14.4 percent. State's attorney: 5.5 percent. County clerk (in a year free of a major election): 27.7 percent. Sheriff: 3.3 percent. Chief judge: 7.6 percent. Clerk of the Circuit Court: 7 percent. Here's an intriguing comparison: Total 2007 spending for the county offices that report to Stroger -- the Bureau of Health is by far the biggest -- dropped 10.6 percent from 2006. Stroger cut 19 percent from his own relatively small office budget (to $1.3 million). Yet the total '07 budget for the other county officials decreased only 5.8 percent. What happened to the threatened 17 percent cuts across the board? Stroger raised some appropriations during his negotiations with county officials before the board's 2007 budget vote. And board members added amendments: Restoring some cuts and adding new expenditures made the budget what it is. A caveat: Some officials bring in revenue. If they can demonstrate Wednesday that spending cuts and unbudgeted revenue increases in '07 combined to reduce their reliance on taxpayers by 17 percent, bully for them! That should be Cook County's future: higher fees for firms and individuals who use county databases and services -- and less reliance on tapped-out taxpayers. So if you hear county bosses yowling that they've already given at the office and can't absorb more cuts, remember: For many of them, the 17 percent cuts of 2007 were a charade.

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