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Stroger says he'll curtail taxing and spending
But budget proposal rests on borrowing $740 million, critics point out

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said Tuesday that he plans to hold the line on taxing and spending by leaving hundreds of jobs vacant, but critics quickly noted his 2009 budget proposal hinges on plans to borrow $740 million.

Stroger, who backed a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase that was approved this year, proposed holding spending steady at $2.9 billion next year. The budget "contains no new or increased taxes or fees—none," he said.

He later conceded that if the board rejects three proposed bond issues, operating funds would be tapped to pay for construction and technology, adequately fund the county's pension system and replenish a self-insurance fund.

"There's not a ton of money lying around," Stroger said, weeks after warning other elected officials that failure to approve the bond issues could trigger thousands of layoffs.

Critics said they couldn't fully evaluate Stroger's proposal because the budget he released was riddled with errors.

"Every year, President Stroger issues his budget, and it's a mess," said Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago). "It's full of errors. It's incomplete.

"They don't even know what their own financial picture is, and I think the strongest evidence of that is that they are suggesting they have to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars even though they've got $300 to $400 million of new tax revenue coming in the door."

Copies of the budget were not released to the media by late Tuesday afternoon. Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings said inaccurate figures in the budget resulted from computer errors.

"We had a printer's issue," she said. "There are some numbers that need to be adjusted."

Commissioners in 2007 approved a budget calling for a $104 million pension-fund bond issue and later approved construction projects to be paid for with borrowing, but they have balked at approving the bond issues to fund pension and construction costs.

"Right now, I don't believe we have the votes," said John Daley (D-Chicago), chairman of the finance committee.

Daley and Dunnings called on commissioners to come up with alternative plans for funding the pension system, covering construction costs and paying bills paid through the self-insurance fund.

Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), who voted for the 2007 budget, acknowledged the tough economic times. "This is a whole new world, and we have to face that reality," he said.

"Budget day is like 'Groundhog Day' in Cook County," he added. "Every day is the same day over and over again. No one gets to the root issue here, which is the financial imbalance of not streamlining this county, not making it more efficient."

In addition to not filling 596 vacant posts, Stroger would ask employees to take between three and seven furlough days a year to save $15 million. The county hopes to generate extra revenue by holding administrative hearings for civil-ordinance violations.

In a significant change, the budget did not include capital spending.

Commissioners will be asked to separately approve each construction project, Dunnings said.

hdardick@tribune.com


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