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Stroger proposes no new taxes or fees in Cook County budget

Friday, October 23, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

With a re-election battle less than four months away, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger today proposed a $3 billion budget that includes no new taxes or fees.

Speaking to county commissioners, Stroger said his new budget maintains the same level of services.

"Cook County can and will meet its obligations," Stroger said.

While the economy is declining, the major reason Stroger is able to maintain the status quo is the penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax increase he pushed through last year. That controversial tax generates nearly $400 million a year.

Stroger held out the tax increase as a positive aspect of his administration.

"Today, as our national and state governments face terrible deficits, and as many local governments in Illinois find themselves in dire financial shape, Cook County is relatively strong," he said.

Stroger could face four or more challengers in the Feb. 2 Democratic primary, with the sales-tax increase expected to be a major issue.

Overall, Stroger's budget would increase spending by $80 million, or about 3.6 percent. Increased costs include a $30 million payment toward a previously unmet obligation to an employee pension fund; $35 million more for the Cook County sheriff's office, mostly to comply with jail staffing mandates made by the federal courts; and $22 million for employee pay increases.

The number of county employees will be cut to 22,155, the lowest level in 25 years, Stroger said. Most of the employee cuts, however, are in the portion of the budget drawn up by a new independent board overseeing the county's public health system.

Although health system spending would increase by $37 million, it would get $73 million less from the county. That $73 million, coupled with federal stimulus funds, more than covers the increased spending Stroger proposes.

New initiatives in the budget include $400,000 in grants to the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago and the CeaseFire anti-violence program.

"At a time when charitable gving is down, given the state of the economy, we can and should support organizations with proven track records like these," he said. "We own it to the children of Cook County."

Stroger also said he is backing an "administrative supervised release project" to reduce the daily population at Cook County Jail.

If the budget gets approved by Thanksgiving, as Stroger requested today, it would be the earliest approval in at least eight years.

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