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A truth check on Stroger: Do his promises match up with the math?

Monday, June 23, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger came to the suburbs ast week armed with a plethora of facts and figures to defend his $426 million sales tax increase. The county leader's long-anticipated visit to Palatine was aimed at explaining to residents and civic leaders why the tax hike, which came on top of the county's $3.2 billion budget, was needed. The money isn't just for Chicago, Stroger said, pointing to numerous areas where he says the county foots the bill for services that help suburban residents. So how do the facts and figures he presented during his two-hour visit stack up? Here's an analysis of some of the claims and whether they are true, false or somewhere in between. CLAIM: Cook County provides police patrols, plowing and road services, Vista Health Care clinic services, infectious disease control and many other services to the North and Northwest suburbs. TRUE: The Rolling Meadows courthouse is the most visible representation of county services in the suburbs, with a police force from the county sheriff's office also stationed there. The Vista Health Clinic is also the area's public health care clinic, providing health care to the indigent and under-insured. CLAIM: Eighty percent of the county's costs are personnel related. UNKNOWN, but in the ballpark: This claim could not be verified because, almost a full six months into the budget year, the county has yet to issue a finalized budget. Spokesman Gene Mullins promised the new books will arrive "at the end of next week." The proposed 2008 budget, released at the end of 2007, was error-ridden with finance staff telling reporters to throw them away. However, those familiar with the county's budget say the figure is generally correct. CLAIM: "We also have costs that we don't have a lot of control over and those are employee costs. We can't tell employees that, 'No, you don't get a cost of living increase,' " Stroger said. FALSE: While Stroger is correct that union agreements already negotiated cannot be reopened, future negotiations could cut COLAs and so-called automatic annual "step increases" that are unheard of in the private sector. To do so, however, runs the risk of inciting county employees into labor action, such as a strike. Business groups, such as the Civic Federation, have long contended that the county needs to be tougher in negotiations and get employees to pay more for health care and benefits, just as the Chicago Public Schools system has. Additionally, the county has unilateral power to scale back COLA and step increases for non-union county employees, but consistently gives them comparable benefits. The county also has the power to lay off employees, which Stroger did last year. He said doing so this year would have meant drastic service cuts. However, Stroger pledged at the meeting to reduce the county workforce to 22,000 employees by 2010, a promise he made when he ran for office that has yet to be realized. CLAIM: The most recent pay raises to Cook County state's attorneys and COLA increases to non-union employees came at the mandate of the board, not President Todd Stroger's office, adding $110 million to the county budget annually. TRUE: Commissioners face election every four years and, like most politicians, fear giving their political challengers any vote that could be spun as anti-law enforcement. The state's attorney's pay raise passed unanimously, even with votes from critics who say Stroger spends too much. CLAIM: The contention that "the county payroll has become bloated with my friends and relatives … is not true," Stroger said. UP FOR DEBATE: Stroger, like every political administrator such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is allowed a certain number of "exempt" employees who are allowed and even expected to be politically loyal to him. Critics say they have no problem with hiring political allies in exempt positions, as long as they are qualified. Certain hires that Stroger defended included cousin Donna Dunnings and Carmen Triche Colvin, the wife of Stroger's best friend. The two indeed have professional qualifications. Two hires Stroger did not mention Monday, however, include Ronald Burleson, a friend who worked at his health club who was hired for a $99,000-a-year health bureau job by Stroger, but then demoted to an $86,000-a-year administrative analyst job in the county budget department. Stroger's spokesman refused to produce his qualifications for either position. Another hire that was scuttled was that of Patty Young, the girlfriend of Cook County Commissioner and Stroger ally William Beavers. Young was let go shortly after the hire was publicized. In addition, a court-appointed hiring monitor, Julia Nowicki, flayed the Stroger administration for not doing enough to curb hiring abuses, including the hiring of a man who openly politicked on county time for Stroger, and who had a new job position created for him despite being found unqualified for five other posts. Past media analyses of ZIP codes of county workers under past president John Stroger showed that a disproportionate number hail from Stroger's 8th Ward. Where that number stands today is impossible to tell. After the last analyses, county administrators stopped releasing the ZIP codes of employees, claiming it violated their privacy. CLAIM: There is no "budget surplus." UP FOR DEBATE: The 1 percent sales tax increase is estimated to bring in an additional $426 million annually. When administrators were setting the budget for 2008, the budget deficit was announced to be around $230 million, prompting critics to claim the county was taxing more than it needed. Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings correctly points out that only two months of increased sales taxes will be collected this year, or up to about $80 million. Thus, from next year's 2009 surplus, $150 million had to be borrowed for this year, leaving only about $46 million when the $150 million and $230 million in additional costs for 2009 were accounted for. That remainder will be eaten up by annual increases in labor costs, Dunnings said. And, she said, the $230 million deficit number turned out to be optimistic, rising to $307 million because Bureau of Health bill collections went even worse than anticipated. That still leaves 2010, where even if the $307 million figure is to be believed, some surplus remains. Again, administrators say, labor cost increases and court-mandated increased hiring at the jail will eat up that surplus. Critics point out that no administration in recent history has passed a tax increase large enough to account for increases three years out. The practice encourages spending rather than cost-cutting, they claim. It also has the convenient effect of putting distance between the raising of taxes and Stroger's 2010 re-election campaign. CLAIM: The county was trying to pay for "2008 services with 1992 dollars." FALSE: While the sales tax hadn't been increased since its 1992 inception, and the property tax levy has remained flat for the last 12 years, the county has periodically increased other taxes, such as the cigarette tax in 2004. CLAIM: Stroger promised not to raise taxes in 2007 and kept that promise. TRUE: When running for office, Stroger vowed not to raise taxes in his first year, and said he had no plans to raise taxes after that, unless some sort of "emergency" came along. The definition of emergency, he said at the time, could include a deficit that threatened basic services. CLAIM: Administrators cut departments 4 percent this current budget year. FALSE: That figure was a reduction from the proposed increase Stroger wanted to give departments. The actual dollar amount for most departments still increased, just at a rate lower than what Stroger originally proposed. CLAIM: "The 8 percent (of the budget) that is under the president's control, just about all of that is designated for the suburban areas." FALSE: A Cook County spokesman had no immediate explanation of the claim, but it seems to stem from the fact that Stroger's office controls departments like Building and Zoning or Animal Control, which only provide services in the suburbs or unincorporated areas. But many more departments, like the Juvenile Advisory Council, the Medical Examiner, the Public Defender, The Veteran's Assistance Commission, the Cook County Law Library, The Department of Human Rights, Public Affairs and others serve both Chicago and suburban residents.


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