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Editorial: Commissioners, don’t drop the ball

Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Sun Times editorial staff

To truly appreciate the groundbreaking nature of the budget Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle will propose today, let’s remind ourselves just how creative the county’s accounting typically has been.

When Preckwinkle was sworn in, her office — just one of many in county government — had a budget of $2.2 million a year. It said so right in last year’s budget.

Actually, though, the president’s office spent $2.6 million. So under the county’s creative accounting, $2.2 million equalled $2.6 million.

But the county’s accounting was even more creative than that. Because midyear raises had been handed out, the $2.2 million in fact equalled $2.9 million for the coming year.

If you don’t quite follow that, let it go. All you really need to know is that at the County Building, expenditures — and the need for higher taxes and fees — kept going up.

Until now.

Since Preckwinkle was sworn in on Dec. 6, she has made it clear that the county is going to live within its means, which will require significant spending cuts in almost every county office. And the budget she is proposing is groundbreaking because it does just that.

Now it’s time for the County Board, which will be presented with Preckwinkle’s proposed budget today, to show that it also is serious about getting costs in line. The 17 commissioners must avoid the temptation to add spending back into the $3.1 billion budget, which must be passed by Feb. 28. If they find places where they think Preckwinkle’s cuts are too draconian, they must offset any spending restorations with new cuts elsewhere.

It wasn’t easy getting even this far. Facing a $487 million deficit, Preckwinkle initially asked all departments to trim their spending by 16 percent on an annual basis. She also called in an array of pro bono consultants to help find ways to run things more efficiently.

Additional help should have come from the outgoing administration of Todd Stroger, but Preckwinkle says her predecessors offered “next to no cooperation.” Preckwinkle also got early opposition from Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and had a longer battle with Sheriff Thomas Dart, who runs the county’s biggest office.

Balancing the budget will be painful. In the end, an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 of the county’s 23,700 workers will be let go. The county should do whatever it can to help these workers find new jobs.

Once this budget is passed, Preckwinkle says her staff will promptly begin work on next year’s. She has vowed to eliminate the remaining part of Stroger’s calamitous sales tax increase, and more savings must be found to offset that.

Meanwhile, John Daley, the powerful chairman of the county’s Finance Committee, said last week he thinks Preckwinkle will have at least the nine votes she needs to get her budget passed. That would be terrific.

We trust his numbers will hold up better than the county’s bogus old creative accounting.

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