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Cook County Budget Showdown Getting 'Hairy'
No End Yet to Standoff

Wednesday, January 07, 2004
Daily Southtown
by Kristen McQueary

Seven days into the new year, the 17-member Cook County Board that oversees a $2.9 billion budget still has not agreed on one.

The unfinished 2004 budget was not on the meeting agenda Tuesday, and a standoff between county board President John Stroger and a group of opposition board members didn't soften over the holidays.

Unable to secure enough votes to pass his spending plan, which includes a sales tax increase and a new lease tax, Stroger has not called it for a vote. Instead, commissioners filed more than 90 budget amendments, though no meeting has been scheduled to address them.

"We've provided (Stroger) with an array of options - a buffet of choices on how to cut the budget," said Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-10th) of Chicago, who opposes Stroger's budget. "We're only talking about $58 million to cut from a $2.9 billion budget. That should be an easy negotiation."

With political pressure building between county commissioners, countywide officers whose budgets fall within the board's purview, and Stroger, negotiations over the budget have been anything but easy. One budget snit last fall between Stroger and Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan resulted in Sheahan reassigning Stroger's bodyguards.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13th) of Evanston said Tuesday the budget can be cut by eliminating unfilled job openings. The county sets aside money and benefits for open positions - roughly 1,400 in the 2004 budget - in the hope the jobs will be filled. Some of the vacancies are in areas that, nationally, have been hard to fill, such as nursing. Others have gone for years without being filled.

Stroger's office said across-the-board cuts of unfilled positions would hamstring certain areas of county government and worsen overtime expenses. Once jobs are eliminated, it's difficult to get them back in the budget.

Also, eliminating unfilled job openings does not fully address the premise of cutting so-called waste in county government, aides to Stroger said. Just because a job is filled doesn't mean it's a necessary job.

Even reformers on the board have resisted layoffs.

Quigley, who in the past has criticized Sheahan's budget, said he will reintroduce some of his proposals later this month addressing the sheriff's office.

In the meantime, observers of county government can monitor the facial hair on Tom Glaser's face to follow the negotiations: Glaser, the county's usually clean-cut chief financial officer, said he is growing a beard until a budget is passed.

The board meets again Jan. 22.

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