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Preckwinkle: Time to end 'spending without control' at county

Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle today presented her first budget proposal, telling somber commissioners that it is  time to end “spending without control.”

To close a hole pegged at $487 million, Preckwinkle wants a combination of cuts, long-term debt refinancing, short-term borrowing, collection of unpaid taxes, modest fee increases and draw downs of surplus funds.

Some details have yet to be hashed out by other countywide elected leaders and commissioners, but at least 1,075 workers -- and possibly twice that many -- would be laid off.

“I realize this is a challenging situation, but we must address it,” Preckwinkle told commissioners. “We cannot continue this spending without control, managing without measure. We can do better.”

Preckwinkle, who took office in December, put the budget together quickly. In coming years, she said she plans to address more fundamental budget problems. The aim is to eliminate the remaining half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase enacted under former Board President Todd Stroger by 2013.

“The proposed budget represents the first step of a restructuring of county finances for a long-term plan that will address the structural deficit and lay the groundwork for the rollback of the sales-tax increase,” Preckwinkle said. “We must break the habits that got us here. We must build a new foundation to stabilize our finances.”

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan government budget watchdog group, noted how quiet it was in the board room during Preckwinkle’s presentation.

“It’s a reality check for this government,” he said. “This government has to get its spending under control.”

Msall went on to say he was “pleasantly surprised” by the cuts in Preckwinkle’s first budget effort, although he cautioned that his staff has yet to comb through all the details, particularly those related to debt refinancing.

“We have never seen this level of detailed preparation and innovation in a budget proposal from a County Board president before,” he said. “Without a doubt, this is a new day.”

Preckwinkle’s presentation came less than an hour after she and Sheriff Tom Dart announced they had reached agreement on budget cuts.

Instead of making cuts and increasing revenue by a total of 16 percent, Dart will combine the two to save 12 percent, the two announced this morning.

“This has been a difficult process for all involved,” Dart said. “We are both committed to working together going forward.”

Dart said he will end up laying off about 100 employees. Cuts and revenue increases -- including higher court-service fees and keeping more foreclosure sales fees by using less outside companies to do that work -- will total about $53 million. That's about $17 million less than Preckwinkle sought from Dart.

“We just had to squeeze elsewhere,” said Kurt Summers, Preckwinkle's chief of staff, explaining how the difference would be made up. “Areas where we had room for adjustment or room for error, we no longer have that.”

Last week, Preckwinkle said too many of Dart's employees were out on long-term sick leave or caring for family members under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. A task force will be set up to study that issue, Preckwinkle and Dart announced.

Preckwinkle has proposed cuts and revenue increases of 17 percent in the offices she controls. In those offices alone, 418 employees would be laid off. Preckwinkle also has imposed a 10 percent salary cut on herself.

The budget trims and fee increases in most other county offices total about 16 percent. The state’s attorney’s and public defender’s offices took will be hit with combined cuts, draw downs and increases of 10 percent.


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