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A Cook Budget Without Tax Hikes

Monday, December 22, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Three weeks into a new fiscal year, the administration of Cook County Board President John Stroger has produced no workable budget for the county -- and has no prospect for a budget that the County Board will accept.

There are two ways out of this budget impasse. If Stroger's team doesn't choose one, the County Board should responsibly choose the other.

The impasse exists because nine of the 17 board members have refused to be good little sheep, which is what most board members have been in years past. The nine, who take seriously their campaign pledges to taxpayers, refuse to go along with Stroger's plan to balance a fiscal 2004 budget with tax increases. The nine -- Earlean Collins, Peter Silvestri, Michael Quigley, Forrest Claypool, Larry Suffredin, Gregg Goslin, Carl Hansen, Tony Peraica and Elizabeth Ann Doody Gorman -- have courageously insisted on balancing the budget by cutting expenses.

In Cook County government, "cutting expenses" is heresy. The county routinely solves its budget shortfalls by piling on more taxes rather than by streamlining its flabby operations.

Good for the nine. They and three other County Board members -- Deborah Sims, Joan Patricia Murphy and John Daley -- pledged during last year's campaign that in tight budget years, they would cut the county payroll rather than raise taxes. Voters will soon know if all 12 were telling the truth. At least nine apparently were.

The tax package Stroger proposes -- an increase in the county sales tax and a new lease tax on rented items -- has a diabolical component. Because the package would phase in gradually, the county would receive a total of about $58 million in 2004 from those tax hikes, but a more bountiful total of about $140 million in fiscal 2005. For Stroger's administration, this is a sneaky way of solving a 2004 budget shortfall -- and giving itself an even fatter revenue boost for 2005. The obvious goal is to lock in so much future revenue that Stroger won't have to take heat by seeking yet another tax increase next year.

This kind of gamesmanship is one reason voters booted five board members out of office last year. The insistence of nine board members that the county balance its budget with spending cuts suggests that they understand the public anger.

What now? Easy. All that Stroger needs to do is cut a relatively small $58 million in spending from his proposed budget of almost $3 billion. A lengthy hiring freeze for the county's featherbedded workforce, coupled with elimination of many job slots that already are vacant, would cover much if not most of that $58 million. Cutting spending by that amount would fully negate the need for Stroger's tax hikes in 2004. Then the County Board could institute the many excellent governance and cost-cutting reforms proposed by Collins, Quigley, Goslin, Suffredin and others to lower the county's spending needs for 2005.

Stroger, perhaps because he doesn't want to be seen as losing a fight, seems oddly determined to raise taxes. He says he's willing to compromise -- which he apparently defines as substituting a cigarette tax hike for the lease tax. No thanks. As Silvestri aptly retorted, compromise doesn't mean substituting one tax for another. This budget shortfall needs to be solved by reducing county expenditures. Period.

The job of explaining to Stroger that nine board members absolutely won't approve any tax increase falls to John Daley, chairman of the board's Finance Committee. This shouldn't be about stubbornness or saving face. It's about downsizing a patronage-rich payroll that poor and middle-income taxpayers cannot afford.

If Stroger won't make the cuts, the nine reformers have an excellent option. They can adopt a 2004 budget that simply mimics the 2003 budget. That would blessedly silence Stroger's threat of tax hikes. And for once it would force Cook County officials -- like the hard-pressed taxpayers who pay their generous salaries -- to live within their means.

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