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Preckwinkle swings serious budget ax

Wednesday, February 02, 2011
by SouthtownStar editorial staff

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposal to cut at least 1,075 jobs from the county payroll shows the new leader is willing to make tough choices to close the county’s $487 million budget hole.

Layoffs are an unfortunate but important step to address a massive — and growing — budget gap, and we urge the 17-member Cook County Board to approve the 2011 budget Preckwinkle put forth Tuesday.

While some commissioners may be tempted to add an employee here or a program there, we urge all 17 to seriously weigh the county’s critical fiscal situation and instead devise ways to further curb spending in 2012 and beyond.

County taxpayers for too long have footed the bill for a bloated government that’s long been synonymous with greed, patronage and corruption. Indeed, taxpayers are just beginning to finance the prosecution of the former board president’s deputy chief of staff, Carla Oglesby, who was arrested in October on three felony charges of theft of government property, money laundering and official misconduct.

She’s just the latest official accused of egregious abuse of the public trust at the county level. And we suspect Preckwinkle is just beginning to unearth other questionable hires.

Her commitment to cut at least 1,075 jobs from the county’s 23,700-employee payroll shows she’s serious about creating a leaner Cook County, and we believe board members would be smart to back her in this ambitious endeavor.

Preckwinkle has made clear layoffs are one part of a larger plan to close the budget hole. Her proposed budget also includes short-term borrowing, long-term debt refinancing, collection of unpaid taxes and culling various surplus funds.

She is to be commended for sticking to her guns and striking an agreement with Sheriff Tom Dart to cut $53 million from his budget as part of the 2011 budget. Dart publicly mocked Preckwinkle’s plan to save taxpayer dollars recently when he suggested she cut his whole budget and he could patrol the county and the jail on his bicycle.

Dart’s initial reluctance to work with Preckwinkle to save money for county residents raises questions about his commitment to spend money wisely. Dart oversees a department where, on any given day, 20 percent of his 6,800 employees are off work for personal medical reasons or to care for a family member under the Family and Medical Leave Act. At the jail, it’s 25 percent gone on any given day.

This is the kind of abuse that earns Cook County its reputation as a bloated, inefficient and patronage-laden institution.

County taxpayers, of course, continue to fund health and pension costs for Dart’s absent employees as well as pay substitutes who must fill in to cover shifts for the absent employees.

This raises the question why the department employs 6,800 people when it can clearly operate with at least 20 percent less. Indeed, Dart has said he’ll likely cut about 100 employees this year.

Preckwinkle and Dart jointly announced that the county would form a task force to investigate the incredibly high absentee rate in the sheriff’s department. We expect more interesting findings from this task force.

We urge Preckwinkle and her staff to continue the thorough examination into county finances — especially the sheriff’s and highway departments. And we urge county commissioners to pass her proposed 2011 county budget.

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