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Editorial: Difficult decisions
Making sacrifices for a fiscally responsible Cook County budget

Sunday, October 30, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County taxpayers are making difficult decisions every day to safeguard their future in this economy. They are cutting back on spending, asking everyone to pitch in and doing more with less. They expect their government to make similar sacrifices.

I have carried this mandate with me as Cook County Board president.

On Tuesday, I submitted my second budget to the Cook County Board. This $2.94 billion budget is the toughest and most fiscally responsible in Cook County's history. I'm keeping my commitment to roll back the 2008 sales tax increase. When that rollback is completed in 2013, taxpayers will save $400 million a year.

Less than 1 percent of this year's budget is achieved through one-time fixes. Long-term changes, saving more than $200 million, will fill most of our deficit. That includes layoffs. When I took this job, I never imagined I would be asking more than 1,000 Cook County employees to find a new way to provide for their families. It is not a decision I take lightly or a reflection on the quality and value of these workers. Unfortunately, to ensure the long-term financial viability of this government and the critical services it provides, that is what Cook County has to do.

I have also used this budget to institute some "best practices" in our public safety system. We place in our county jail, at a significant cost to taxpayers, thousands of alleged nonviolent offenders who are awaiting trial. Many of them have jobs and safe places to stay, but they lose them when they cannot afford to post bond and have to stay in jail. We have safe and much more cost-effective ways, like electronic monitoring, to keep these nonviolent offenders out of jail. We can save up to $5 million a year by reducing the number of people in our jail and closing sections of the jail.

Even more appalling is the number of children we jail in our Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. It costs $616 a day to keep a child in the center. That is equivalent to nearly $225,000 a year ó more than the cost of a four-year education at Harvard. Cook County jails twice as many youths as Harris County, Texas ó the third largest county in the nation. Most of these children do not belong in jail ó we keep 43 percent of them there for a week or less. They need an alternative, a safe home near their communities. We can reduce the juvenile center population by half over the next two years, saving taxpayers $1 million this year and $7 million next year, by using better, more cost-effective community homes for these youths.

I have also made some very modest, strategic increases in taxes. When the county's alcohol tax was introduced in 1989, it was to support our public health system, where doctors and nurses see the impact and financial costs of alcohol consumption on a daily basis. As alcohol prices have gone up, our tax rate on alcohol has decreased. I'm modestly raising the tax on alcohol, restoring it to its 1995 level to ensure that the county health system can continue to provide quality patient care.

I am also asking purchasers of new cars and other vehicles to support a capital infrastructure program via an increase in the county use tax. I'm asking owners to pay an extra $75 on a $30,000 car, a one-time fee, to help fund a job-creating capital investment in the county's 1,500 miles of roads, highways and bridges, which have been deteriorating over the past few decades.

These tax increases amount to less than $35 million in revenue from a small portion of the population; compare that to the $400 million all taxpayers will save with the rollback of the sales tax.

I know Cook County residents will support modest increases, but I also know special interests will fight hard against them.

To address our short-term challenges while taking steps to reach the county's long-term goals, I had to take a comprehensive approach to increasing the fiscal responsibility of Cook County. This budget incorporates key structural changes to all levels of government and makes difficult decisions to ensure our government is more effective and efficient going forward.




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