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Stroger's scare tactics

Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

In February the Cook County Board imposed a full-percentage-point sales-tax increase on citizens and the stressed businesses that employ many of them. You remember: Board President Todd Stroger, who had promised to cut thousands of county jobs, instead needed new money to add some 1,100 positions.

Turns out even that unnecessary tax grab wasn't enough to placate Stroger. His minions now threaten dire consequences if County Board members don't agree to borrow $740 million to make ends meet.

That's right. Less than a year after winning an unnecessary tax increase that should produce close to $400 million a year even in a weak economy, the bright lights in the County Building say they need hundreds of millions more. How else to keep hiring payrollers and awarding lucrative contract work to their cronies?

This is the same ploy Stroger's father, John, often used when he was County Board president. This game has only three rules:

•Invent a financial crisis and predict that if the County Board doesn't give you more money, the Earth will fly into the sun.

•Stoke public pressure until weak-of-spine board members cave to your demand.

•Spend all the new money—Wahoo!—in ways that employ more patronage workers and attract big campaign contributions—the better to enhance your odds of re-election.

This year Team Stroger has added a noxious twist: A letter Wednesday from Daniel Degnan, executive director of the county's pension fund, warns retirees that unless the County Board approves the bonding Stroger wants, "we may be forced to liquidate assets potentially realizing investment losses due to the current market conditions."

The letter, complete with County Board members' phone numbers, terrified pensioners. They've been dialing furiously—and even though their pensions aren't really in peril, who can blame them? They worked for Cook County. They know how miser- ably the Democratic machine manages the place.

Peter Silvestri, a Republican board member, describes the letter from Stroger's fund manager as "preying on pensioners" to shore up the goofy bonding proposal: Stroger would have the county borrow millions to, among other things, meet pension funding and other obligations that should be paid from current tax revenues. His plan is the equivalent of a family taking on a new mortgage to pay grocery bills.

Expect to hear more about Stroger's scare tactics Tuesday when he unveils his proposed budget for 2009. Silvestri and board member Forrest Claypool, a Democrat, pose a superb question: If the gully washer of new sales-tax revenue won't be used to cover pension and other routine costs, where will it all go?

The honest answer, of course, is that Stroger's underlings would rather spend every cent of tax and bond money they can extort than streamline this fat government. Their strategy is all about winning re-election. Big budgets help them make and keep friends—campaign foot soldiers, and county contractors who'll make those big donations.

When you hear Tuesday about the 2009 budget Stroger proposes, and as you ponder his call for more bonding by the hundreds of millions, remember two things:

•Claypool neatly captured Stroger's scheming in a letter Friday to the county pension fund's Degnan: "President Stroger has reverted to fear and bullying tactics in an attempt to force further borrowing and debt. . . . You have been used as a tool in President Stroger's political game, and in the process frightened senior citizens unnecessarily and without any factual basis."

•There's a reason the Tribune is keeping this calendar, with its countdown until the Feb. 2, 2010, Illinois primary election. That's when fed-up voters can move to take back Cook County's bloated and greedy government from Stroger, his friends and family.

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