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Making a list: what Cook County can give residents

Monday, December 22, 2003
Crain's Chicago Business
by Laurence Msall


Crain's Chicago Business

Anyone who has ever attempted to unwind a string of tangled holiday lights can appreciate the difficulty of sorting out the budgets of Cook County and its Forest Preserve District.

As county officials contemplate celebrating the new year with a tax increase, they would be wise to remember that it is the thought that counts, not the increase.

The Civic Federation and other business groups have come up with as many ways to improve county government as there are lights on the tree in Daley Plaza. Implementing these ideas would be the best gift for county residents, and it wouldn't require tax increases, layoffs or significant service cuts.
Natural revenue growth from existing taxes and fees is expected to top $60 million next year. Combine that with $61 million saved by eliminating vacancies and regularly unspent appropriations, and you've more than covered the county's reported $86-million deficit.

Cook County should follow the lead of Mayor Richard Daley in balancing the budget. The city has shrunk its workforce 6% over the last five years through privatization and management improvements.

The county must make government leaner. Balancing the deficit with tax hikes will be counterproductive, particularly as local businesses struggle to emerge from a weakened economy. At a time when the private sector is reducing all costs, including personnel, the public sector must apply the same discipline.

While management efficiencies and natural revenue growth can close the 2004 budget gap, the county must begin to adopt long-term solutions. There is no shortage of ideas from civic organizations and the county's own 2001 County Operations Review Team report, but most of these recommendations have yet to be acted upon. Some key ideas that have been proposed by the Civic Federation over the years include:

• Eliminate automatic step increases for Cook County employees, which could save as much as $26 million annually.

• Dissolve the Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District and transfer its assets to the county, which could immediately yield at least $9.6 million.

• Jointly purchase health insurance with other major local governments, which could save the county as much as $22.5 million.

Once the county budget is balanced, the next item on residents' wish list is forest preserve reform.

The hurried forest preserve budget process this year is further evidence of the need to sever the legal bond between the Cook County Board of Commissioners and the Cook County Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners. Currently, the same commissioners serve on both boards and review both budgets at the same time.

Cook County would be well- served to follow the lead of DuPage County, which formally separated the boards of its county government and forest preserves this year. One immediate positive result of that split was a rationalization of the DuPage Forest Preserve land acquisition policy; another is the ability of each board to focus on its mission without the distractions of the other government.

Laurence Msall is president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan government and tax research group supported by Chicago's leading business and service firms.

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