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Cook County on a diet
The bottom line here isn't sexy, but taxpayers can be grateful.

Sunday, October 30, 2011
Chicago Tribune

The president of the Cook County Board is floating her proposed budget for 2012, and there's plenty for citizens already feeling nickeled and dimed not to like: New licensing fees on cash-operated jukeboxes, pool tables and other amusement devices. New service charges, and higher vehicle sticker fees, for the 2 percent of county residents who live in unincorporated areas. Higher parking charges at county garages. A tax hike on alcoholic beverages, and a broadening of the tobacco tax to products (think roll-your-own) other than cigarettes. A higher "use tax" on the purchase of titled property, such as cars and boats.

If you've been reading the news coverage, you know that some county commissioners reacted unhappily last week to these and other money-raising components of the budget.

So let's all take a moment of silence and wish that Toni Preckwinkle instead had found more places to cut spending. Let's hope, too, that commissioners will work with her to refine some of her ideas. Example: Raising parking costs for court jurors would be one more inducement for citizens to find ways to dodge jury duty.

OK, now that we're all breathing easily, let's look at the big picture here — and be grateful. Preckwinkle is in only her 11th month at the helm of a government bigger than those of many states. She follows presidents who, with the help of tax-happy and patronage-first allies (some of whom still take up space on the County Board), made this government a paragon of waste. Think of all the payroll featherbedding, the one-time budget tricks, the disastrous sales tax hike that her predecessor, Todd Stroger, masterminded, the willingness to give other elected county officials and department heads whatever appropriations and fat head counts they wanted — decade after decade, prior county budgets have foisted these insults and more on taxpayers.

Now comes Preckwinkle brandishing a $2.9 billion budget slightly smaller than the budget for the fiscal year that ends Nov. 30. She's proposing to cut some 1,600 jobs, including more than 500 vacant positions that previous administrations, via convoluted means, manipulated to camouflage their overspending. She's denying almost all of the spending increases sought by other county officials. What's more, John Daley, the County Board's finance chairman, pledges to have the 2012 budget set by Nov. 18 — more than 100 days before the legal deadline. The net effect will be to deny board members who oppose cuts a chance to mischievously protect their favored spending during middle-of-the-night budget chaos at that end-of-February deadline.

The bottom line here isn't sexy, but taxpayers can be grateful: Turns out that Preckwinkle's 2010 campaign talk was more than talk. She has put Cook County government on a diet. She is reducing — although still not enough — the workforce. She is making good on her pledge to eliminate Stroger's sales tax increase, the last quarter-point of which is slated to expire at the end of 2012. She's forcing logical economies on the county's costly health system. And she is not asking for a general tax increase on property or anything else.

We give Preckwinkle credit for confronting the host of complex inequities that unincorporated areas present. These often overlooked territories run the gamut from starter-home communities to apartment clusters to wealthy enclaves. Residents may attach their neighborhoods to fire protection districts, but they generally rely on sheriff's deputies — who may have to drive long distances to reach them — for police calls.

Preckwinkle would put these unincorporated stretches into "special service areas" to pay for services typically provided by municipalities. Board member Larry Suffredin long has advocated that abutting suburbs instead annex these areas — although he's quick to note why suburban officials often object: Annexing unincorporated areas would mean a costly upgrading of their typically inferior streets and sewers. A simpler option, which Suffredin says residents of some unincorporated areas now employ, is contracting with the abutting suburbs for municipal services. In that model, the unincorporated area is a customer of, but not a part of, an incorporated community.

Preckwinkle is correct to make Cook County finally face the fact that it cannot economically justify supplying municipal services to far-flung unincorporated areas. Anybody who's watched a county highway truck hopscotch from one remote strip of county road to another knows how inefficient the current system is.

We like Preckwinkle's budget primarily because we like its trajectory: less spending, fewer payrollers, and no general tax increase. We hope the County Board takes a hard look at her tax and fee proposals. And, above all, we hope taxpayers realize how fortunate they are that Todd Stroger no longer is proposing county budgets.

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