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Cook County cuts another $20 million of borrowing

Thursday, April 02, 2009
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

The battle for control over borrowing in Cook County government escalated Wednesday, with Republicans and reform Democrats forcing the administration to reduce its borrowing even further in 2009.

Initially, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and commissioners loyal to him insisted the county needed to borrow about $740 million in 2009, including hundreds of millions for operating expenses in 2009.

But opposition commissioners, led by Democratic Cook County Commissioners Forrest Claypool and Michael Quigley insisted it was bad financial practice to borrow for recurring expenses, and Stroger and fellow commissioners eventually dropped the demand, passing the 2009 budget without borrowing for operating expenses.

But Stroger and regular Democratic commissioners thought that they had agreement with the opposition commissioners on $262 million in borrowing for capital projects, such as for a new prisoner intake facility at the Cook County Jail.

Commissioners like Claypool had signaled they could accept borrowing for capital projects because it is accepted financial practice.

But now some commissioners, like Bartlett Republican Tim Schneider, want to go over each and every capital project one more time to make sure they're all really necessary.

Apparently, they're not.

Faced Wednesday with an all-day revolt by Schneider and company, Stroger's director of capital planning, Bruce Washington, tried to pre-empt more cuts by offering up another $20 million in projects he said could wait or be canceled.

The move infuriated Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, who was under the impression Washington had promised the list was pared to the bone already.

"I would really ... wonder if we waited another month (to approve these bonds) what else would be canceled," scoffed Daley. "I'm disappointed, Bruce."

Commissioners took the offered cuts, but did not appear to yet be sated. They recessed Wednesday's meeting until after Thursday's forest preserve meeting, when they vowed to keep combing through the list line-by-line to pare even more projects.

Cook County Commissioner Bill Beavers said the commissioners' refusal to approve the bonds was based in race, because Stroger has selected bond counsel who are from the minority community.

"Make it all white (the bond counsel and underwriters) and I guarantee you could get it passed before you could make it to the newspapers," said Beavers.

"Do we honestly believe that anyone here is objecting to the team?" replied Republican Pete Silvestri of Elmwood Park. "I don't care what they are. There's even a Pinelli here, so we got every (race) going. ... The issue is what's in the bond issue."

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