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Stroger needs to swallow bitter p
County Board awaits unappetizing budget plan

Monday, December 20, 2004
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Faced with a nasty choice between fiscal broccoli or peas, Cook County Board President John Stroger has made the choice any kid would recognize: keep quiet, and hope for dessert.
All the kid would miss is a helping of veggies. Mr. Stroger’s decision means that, for the first time in recent memory, the $2-billion government he heads will begin its fiscal year without a new budget having been proposed, much less approved.

Aides to Mr. Stroger on Monday confirmed that the 2005 spending proposal still is being prepared and won’t be introduced until sometime next week at the earliest.
We’re waiting for some additional cuts to be identified, said Mr. Stroger’s spokeswoman. “The president would like to get the size of the (budget) hole as small as possible.

At last check, the budget shortfall was around $146 million, with Mr. Stroger pondering an unpalatable mix of tax hikes and service cuts to fill it.

Instead of passing a budget now, Mr. Stroger on Wednesday will ask the board to pass a continuing resolution enabling it to spend funds at the 2004 budget level, the spokeswoman added.

The board is certain to do just that, rather than stop services. But some commissioners and outside watchdogs see little benefit in postponing tough choices.

Swallow the bitter pill

They should have all the information they need to decide, said Laurence MSALL, president of the Civic Federation of Chicago, who termed the delay unprecedented. We see no benefit from a delay.

Mr. MSALL said he knows of no other instance in which a local unit of government in the Chicago area has failed to submit a budget before a year begins. By passing a continuing resolution, the county is avoiding a public debate on what its budget priorities should be, he added.

County Commissioner Michael Quigley said that, in the past decade, the latest the budget has been submitted was Nov. 7, 1996. Though this year’s fiscal budget was not approved until Feb. 24, 2004, Mr. Stroger proposed a draft of it by Oct. 30 last year.

Our decisions are being pushed back later and later, said Mr. Quigley, who has been pondering a race for county president in 2006. A budget is a planning document. If you don’t even introduce a budget until December, you can’t do much planning because the budget really doesn’t take effect until the second quarter.

Mr. Stroger ran into stiff board opposition to tax hikes included in this year’s budget, and eventually had to compromise.

Among the bitter ingredients on the table this time are a proposed sales-tax hike and across-the-board cuts in virtually every county agency except the Sheriff’s Office, which is under court order to boost staffing at the County Jail.

Unlike City Hall which got a huge budget-time windfall when it recently sold the Chicago Skyway Mr. Stroger is not expecting any financial dessert to make his peas taste better.

The only question seems to be how long it will take to start swallowing.



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