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County budget proposal would cut jobs, keep taxes steady
Hundreds of county jobs would be cut if plan approved

Friday, October 23, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick and John Byrne

Less than four months before the primary election, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger on Thursday offered up a budget proposal that holds the line on taxes, if not spending.

But with commissioners also set to face voters Feb. 2, Stroger's financial plan quickly became the latest fodder for the long-running political feud that envelops county government. Several of the 17 commissioners took aim at the budget, saying it includes unnecessary spending.

Stroger's proposal for next year would increase spending by about $131 million to more than $3 billion, and he said it includes no new taxes, fees or long-term borrowing. More than 600 county jobs would be cut, Stroger said.

"At a time when governments throughout our region no longer honor commitments to vendors, forsake promises made to employees at the collective bargaining table and eliminate services that are needed by everyday people, Cook County can and will meet its obligations," Stroger told commissioners, who need to approve the plan.

Stroger is able to avoid a tax increase after he pushed through a controversial penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax hike last year.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, who was a key vote in helping Stroger pass the tax hike and has been trying to repeal it for months, criticized the budget plan.

"(Stroger) knows that there is a lot of fluff in here, and my position is we could easily cut $160 million from this, and if we don't do it by reducing the sales tax, we should do it by reducing the property tax levy," said Suffredin, who voted for the sales tax in exchange for Stroger agreeing to form an independent board to oversee the county's public health system.

Under that new board, the health system obtained tens of millions of dollars more in federal funding, which allowed it to ask the county for $73 million less next year. That, in turn, gave Stroger leeway to spend more elsewhere.

Suffredin said more than half the job reductions included in the budget are a result of cutbacks in health system staffing proposed by the independent board.

Despite those cuts, Stroger said he planned to "revisit" the independent board's budget proposal. "Are any of us truly independent?" he asked. "Shouldn't we all answer to somebody?"

Some changes the independent board members "appear to want to take will reduce the services that we offer," he added. "The long lines may shrink, but that's only because people will have given up on going to the county system. And that's my fear."

Health and Hospitals System officials, who declined to comment Thursday, have said they are aiming to be more efficient while maintaining services. For decades, the county health system had been widely criticized as an inefficient, bloated patronage fiefdom.

Commissioner Timothy Schneider, R-Streamwood, said the independent board's plans "are in jeopardy right now" because of resistance from employee unions and Stroger. "We need to let the professionals on the hospital board do their jobs," he said.

Stroger also included a number of new programs in his budget, including giving $200,000 each to the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago and the CeaseFire anti-violence program. He also wants to spend $250,000 to create a Cook County film commission.

He also touted an attempt to settle a dispute between Sheriff Tom Dart and Chief Judge Timothy Evans that prevents hundreds of people awaiting trial after being accused of nonviolent crimes from being placed on electronic home monitoring. That could save more than $20 million a year, a Tribune analysis concluded last year.

How Stroger's plans fare will depend not only on the County Board, but also the General Assembly, which is mulling legislation to lower the number of commissioners needed to override his veto. If that succeeds, the board could again try to roll back the sales tax increase.

"With the election at that point 60 or 80 days away, I can tell you a lot of people are going to find religion on this board, and do the right thing for their own self interest, and support the rollback," said Commissioner Tony Peraica, R-Riverside.


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