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Moving past the tax myth

Thursday, December 20, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Cook County Clerk David Orr? Yes, if he must, he'll cut 10 percent from his 2008 budget. Assessor Jim Houlihan? It won't be pretty, but yes. Chief Judge Tim Evans? His good news is that he can institute several new court fees -- creating revenues to offset 10 percent of his budget. Treasurer Maria Pappas? Her office's revenue prospects are so bullish that she's reducing her '08 appropriation request by ... 64 percent.

Taxpayers' insistence that they can't afford Cook County government's every need is finally sinking in. That may lead to serious inconveniences for county offices. But the execs who run those offices are coming to absorb the reality that John Daley, head of the County Board's Finance Committee, described at a meeting Wednesday to discuss possible budget cuts.

A whole row of county bosses sank perceptibly into their seats when Daley said: "Elected officials, believe me, this is no bluff. There is no support whatsoever for new taxes. This is not a game."
With that honest declaration, the myth that board President Todd Stroger still might salvage some tax increases finally died. You know the back story: Stroger swore an oath to streamline his blubbery government, didn't deliver on his vow -- yet proposed tax increases big enough to carry him past a run for re-election in 2010.

Not happening. But just as forest fires encourage new growth, the death of tax increases is provoking creativity at, of all places, the County Building. Sprigs sprouted everywhere Wednesday: talk of finally moving to paperless "e-courts," of ending the costly warehousing of obsolete records, of downsizing the county's vast vehicle fleet -- a goal Houlihan assists by paying his 90-some assessors a reimbursement for using their own cars. Can't more offices do that?

If it's refreshing for you to hear talk about economizing, think how dispiriting it must be for such eager tax-and-spenders as board members Joan Patricia Murphy, Joseph Mario Moreno and Deborah Sims. Wednesday's comedic moment: Moreno, desperate to resurrect Stroger's proposed 2-percentage-point increase in the sales tax, all but begs Houlihan to endorse it. But Houlihan, no fool he, won't bite. He tells a deflated Moreno that he'd suggest not raising the sales tax, but expanding the kinds of transactions to which it applies. Houlihan then explains the obvious: The sales tax here already is too high. With that smackdown, it's Moreno's turn to sink perceptibly into his seat.

Not every countywide official wants to face facts. Lame-duck State's Atty. Dick Devine, whose office has 258 vehicles, nevertheless warns that a 10 percent cut means dropping 143 positions, "most of which would be prosecutors." A peculiar threat, given that some candidates in the race to replace him are suggesting that Devine has ... too many prosecutors.

Oh, and the day offered one New Year's present from John Daley. He wants a report on how much money officials have spent over the years to modernize the technology in their offices. Which suggests that, come 2008, Daley will ask those officials two crucial questions:

How many actual jobs have you eliminated because of all the automation money you've spent?

And how much new revenue has all that new technology generated for Cook County?

Because inquiring taxpayers want to know.

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