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Stroger: Secede if you want to, but it's 'not really practical'

Thursday, May 01, 2008
Daily Herald
by Joseph Ryan

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger says he won't try to stop suburbs from breaking away, but he acknowledges such a move is "not really practical."

"If you want to take your ball and go home, then take your ball and go home," he said Wednesday. "I'm not going to try and stop you. If you want to go, that is your right as a citizen."

The first-term Democrat, suffering from a firestorm of ill-will after a recent sales tax hike, also blames allegations of corruption on the media while asserting his administration is fiscally responsible.

The statements came in a wide-ranging, near-half hour interview with the Daily Herald Wednesday, just before Palatine officials opened up a highly charged forum on county issues.

Late Tuesday, Stroger rescinded his plans to answer questions at the meeting, saying it had become too politicized, which Palatine Mayor Rita Mullins agreed with.

The following is a summation of the interview:

On county services

Stroger said Northwest suburbanites don't realize all the county provides them, from millions of dollars for road improvements to a health clinic, snow removal and courts. But Stroger did concede that suburbanites may not get a dollar-for-dollar return on their taxes.

"Since people don't know the full scope of county government, I'm not surprised they feel there isn't a lot of dollars coming their way," he said.

"The difference between us and the municipal taxes is they are right in your face. They are literally working right there. But with county services, you may have to travel. ... but no matter where you go, we are paying for everything.

"There is going to always be some disproportionate amount of money spent in the poor areas than in the rich areas. (Some areas) may not actually need some of the services that the county renders."

On disconnecting

Stroger argues it won't save taxpayers money because they will still have to pay for the needed services, like road repairs and courts.

"It is not really practical. They are still going to have to buy the salt for the road. They are going to have to pay to have the road repaired. There is still going to be the courts. The only difference is you won't have the economies of scale," he said.

The board president pledged he won't try to stop the counties from breaking away by lobbying against it at the state level. In reality, any such a move would face an uphill battle regardless.

"In my opinion, it is a local issue," he said. "If the people believe that this is in their best interest, there is no way I'm going to try and stop them. What is best for the region? That is what my job is to really think about."

What about the loss of sales tax revenue if some suburbs leave?

"If you want to take your ball and go home, then take your ball and go home. I'm not going to try and stop you. If you want to go, that is your right as a citizen," he said.

On the sales tax

Under Stroger's urging, the county board recently leveled a 1-percentage-point sales tax hike, which gave the county the dubious distinction of having one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation. Stroger pointed the shoppers bearing the burden to state and village officials who also institute sales taxes.

"Taxes are a necessary evil. We all have taxes to run our government. I don't want to debate that. We already passed our tax," he said.

On the meeting

Stroger pulled out late Tuesday, saying Palatine officials changed the plans on him. He said there were too many politicians set to attend and it would turn into a political assault.

"My thought was to go and let the citizens know what we do and they could ask questions," he said. "When we went to see the setup, I would be the front and all the elected officials would be in between me and the residents, who would be in the far back."

On corruption

Stroger blamed the media for making up issues.

"Unfortunately the media is like every one of us. They have their friends and they have their enemies. At this time they have decided that I'm their enemy. I don't have any way to fight back," he said.

"There is nobody in my administration who has been indicted for anything. No one has been accused of anything. They seem to be doing a good job and seem to be very above board."

When asked if anyone in the county has testified before a grand jury, Stroger said: "Not about anything that has been going on in my administration. If anyone has testified about anything else, I don't know about it."

On hiring

"If the criteria for hiring people is that I don't know them, that means I'm eliminating a whole lot of people," he said about allegations of hiring friends and family. "If I thought they were smart, I tried to remember them. If I thought they could add something to the county, I would try and hire them."

On budget issues

The board worked to cut $500 million from the budget, Stroger says, but the commissioners don't get credit for their efforts in the press. In fact, he said, "I will pat myself on the back" for passing the budget given the political, deadline and fiscal pressures, which he called a "monumental task."

"I believe in being fiscally responsible and I believe we are doing a good job with our dollars," he said.

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