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Stroger budget draws criticism

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Chicago Defender
by Rhonda Gillespie

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger told the Defender that the fiscal state of the county is “good.”

Still he is borrowing cash, consolidating information technology resources and other county programs, and eliminating employment positions—all in an effort to balance the county’s $2.94 billion budget, in the face of a ravaged national economy.

Stroger called on members of the Black Press Friday to unveil elements of his 2009 budget. And without providing hard numbers or a budget book, he explained, in a twopage handout, some of the highlights and challenges of his county board leadership.

In July, the tax increase the board passed in January went into effect and more than doubled the county sales tax, raising it from .75 percent to 1.75 percent, helping to push the overall sales tax up to 9.75 percent in Cook County. Critics of the taxes point out that it is one of the nation’s highest and helped the city of Chicago to have the highest sales tax in the country.

But Stroger defended the tax increase at the Friday press event, held in advance of Tuesday’s scheduled budget release.

He explained Friday that the tax increase “did what it needed to do,” bringing the county badly needed revenue to makeup cash shortfalls. With the timing of the sales tax jump and the way that the state disburses money, Stroger said the county has only reaped two months worth of financial benefit from the sales tax increase so far.

He did not know how much the county had received from the increase, and the information was not disclosed on any of the literature he provided.

Sean Howard, a Stroger spokesperson, told the Defender that the sales tax revenue addressed health care shortfalls that resulted from deep Bush administration cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, went towards fulfilling a federal mandate that required the county to hire as many as 400 new jail guards and towards a technology modernization for the county’s court system.

Still, to balance next year’s budget, Stroger is hoping to issue bonds to help the county borrow as much as $740 million, in lieu, the president said, of raising property taxes and fees, and cutting jobs.

The board was supposed to release an official budget at its Tuesday press conference but did not.

The 2009 budget had not been released to the Defender by press time. Instead, Stroger said that if the board did not approve his plans to borrow money through bond issuing, as many as 1,000 positions could be lost–some of them staffed, and some not, officials quickly pointed out.

Stroger critics blasted the board president’s borrowing intentions.

Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica, who recently lost his bid for State’s Attorney, called for a tax levy.

Peraica said that the money the county needs for what Stroger called “day to day” operations should come from a real estate tax levy and not from borrowing.

He explained that payroll, pensions and benefits payments make up the bulk–85 percent–of the budget.

Commissioner John Daley could not rule out that some of the borrowed money would go to fund cost of living increases.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool cried foul Tuesday over the bond issuance and the county’s cash crunch.

“Something doesn’t add up here. Something is wrong,” the commissioner said.

But Howard balked at critics of Stroger’s fiscal plans, citing unanimous approval last May by the board to bring bond issuing into the mix as a revenue source for county.

“It was a totally transparent process,” he explained, accusing Claypool of “backpedaling for political reasons.”

Bond issuing “is a normal practice of government,” Howard said.

Much of the money the county needs and expends goes towards providing health care to the 1.1 million users of its medical facilities.

Howard said the board president was adamant about seeing to it that residents continue to have access to Provident and Oak Forest hospitals and the county’s 16 clinics.

Bottom line, Stroger said Tuesday that, “our revenues did not meet our expectations.”

And to help fill the shortfalls, non-union county employees would be asked to take seven furlough days while union employees would be asked to take three.

At Friday’s press conference, Stroger touted a number of cost-saving and cash-recuperating initiatives his office has taken during his tenure, including tightening energy expenditures and expanding property tax incentives to owners of abandoned commercial and industrial properties so that the structures are reoccupied.

Nevertheless, health care continues to be a huge financial expense for the county, which provides often-free health services to Cook County residents and, to the lament of some county officials, residents of neighboring counties.

Marcel Bright, a spokesman for the county’s Health and Hospitals System, told the Defender the health care system’s budget was proposed at $866 million for next year, up $45 million from this year.

Additionally, as the county faces the possibility of job losses systemwide, HHS, which is part of the Bureau of Health, will look to hire some 400 professional staff, according to officials.

Heads of the county’s John H. Stroger Jr., Provident, and Oak Forest hospitals reported Friday that Cook County taxpayers foot the bill for non-paying patients from other counties who use any one of the three hospital’s services.

Bright said the county is currently looking into how many non-county residents are treated at Cook County’s medical facilities. He said that while the number is likely small, compared to the overall number of patients the county treats, it is “significant enough to look into and determine the financial impact.”

Some county health care leaders said most of the non-resident patients come from DuPage and Will Counties.

Stroger said he met with a number of county boards around the state, seeking financial help, seeing that Cook County was treating a growing number of their residents.

But he was rejected, Stroger explained, with the county seats decrying a lack of cash.

So, to help ease Cook County tax payers’ burden but still provide care for all patients regardless of residency, Stroger said Cook County would not pay for prescription drugs for non-county residents.

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