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A Veteran of Budget Battles Makes Case for Compromise

Monday, January 05, 2004
Crain's Chicago Business
by John H. Stroger Jr.

In 1994, I ran for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners on a platform of reducing the reliance on property taxes as a mechanism to fund the operations of this government.

In 1995, property taxes represented 32% of our budget. Today, through the use of alternate revenue sources and serious spending cuts, property taxes represent less than 25% of our revenues. A close look at the county's share of the average taxpayer's bill will reveal that for every $100 paid, the county receives only $8.40.

With that money, we must provide - by state law - a public safety system that includes the courts, jail and juvenile facilities, criminal defense and prosecution, which together account for 51% of our operating budget.

Our health care system represents 40% of the budget and includes four hospitals, 30 ambulatory clinics and a Department of Public Health that is charged with, among its traditional responsibilities, handling the current influenza outbreak, emerging threats of bioterrorism and West Nile virus cases in our suburban area of more than 120 municipalities.

The remaining 9% of the budget funds a number of departments and offices, including our 535-mile highway system, the medical examiner's office, the election system and the tax assessment, collection and distribution systems.

County governments are not glamorous, but they are necessary.

I have a staff of credentialed financial professionals who have been analyzing and preparing budgets for many years. The $2.9-billion budget we presented is based on the historical expenses and revenues, the best practices in the field of public finance and the obligations of this county in terms of services and personnel.

I have proposed a balanced budget for 2004. For the fifth consecutive year, it does not raise property taxes, and for the ninth consecutive year, it reduces our head count - by an additional 246 positions.

I am not opposed to cuts, and have demonstrated that during my tenure as president by cutting 1,500 - or 10% - of the jobs in the offices I control. I have asked the 11 independently elected county officials to share the burden of cuts, but they have pledged to me that they have done their best to keep their expenses as low as possible.

Our conservative financial approach over the past eight years has earned Cook County the highest bond rating in 25 years, which in turn has saved taxpayers millions of dollars in interest costs. This third-party endorsement of our financial management may be lost on those who try to diminish our accomplishments, but we take great pride in knowing that we have managed the taxpayers' money responsibly.

The 2004 budget is in the hands of the Finance Committee, where the amendment process takes place. Some first-term commissioners have suggested cuts that would require the elimination of 3,300 jobs, a reduction that would result in drastic service cuts at a time when our public safety system is already stretched and more people are relying on our health care system. That said, I have expressed my desire to work with them to develop a mutual compromise that would not require cuts in service.

The taxpayers of this county have demonstrated their confidence in my ability to manage the second-largest county in the United States for a third term. I take that charge seriously, and believe I have lived up to my commitment of holding the line on property taxes while providing the services required by law and demanded by those we serve.

John H. Stroger Jr. is president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

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