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183 days, $200 million, Dec. 19

Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial

Tuesday concludes the first half of Cook County's fiscal year, which runs from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30. So how goes it for this storied protectorate of patronage hires, overstaffed offices and juicy contracts for campaign donors?

Earlier this year the Cook County Board cut just enough flab to close a $73 million shortfall in its 2005 budget. The county's budget director warned at the time that the shortfall for 2006 would be bigger--close to $200 million.

You'd like to think that would spark a furious effort among the 17 board members, all of whom are up for re-election next year. This is a government in which--if you work in the private sector, you'll love this--a 2 percent cut from budget requests is called drastic. Cook County's offices need to be downsized, consolidated, streamlined. Cutting another $200 million is merely a step toward creating the more efficient operations that taxpayers can afford.

You'd like to think all that, but you'd be wrong. As usual, many County Board members will wait for board President John Stroger to float a 2006 budget. The bet here is that, as always, he'll blame Washington and Springfield for not giving his sclerotic government more money--and will ask for tax increases.

Stroger didn't get the unneeded tax hikes he wanted in 2004 and 2005, so it'll be fun to see whether he asks board members to further gouge Cook taxpayers during an election cycle.

Fat chance they'll play along.

Here's what those board members should be thinking: We have 183 days to cut $200 million. If we don't save $1 million every day, we aren't doing our jobs. We need to act now. Because it's not just Nov. 30 that should worry us. Our big fear is Dec. 19. That's the filing deadline for challengers who think accepting $85,000 a year to mismanage this county's $3 billion budget is a crime--punishable by ouster from our cushy jobs.

Board members should be rampaging through reports that have been piling up for years on structural ways to save money. And they should insist that Stroger's negotiators hang tough (for once) in contract talks with the county's unions.

Board member Michael Quigley, who has written many of those cost-savings and downsizing reports, says the County Board's perennial refusal to make the tough decisions on how to conserve taxpayers' money meets his definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Right now--not during some manufactured budget crisis next winter--is the time to demand big, permanent changes in staffing, in overtime, in management layers, in virtually automatic pay raises.

Stroger's spokeswoman says his administration is working to buy health insurance jointly with other governments, consolidate what even Stroger admits are duplicative offices in the health department, and seek more help from the unions on such issues as medical premiums. Budget officers' talks with department heads and elected officials also have turned up areas in which privatization would save money.

Those are good first efforts--if they happen. If they don't, and if this government wants more taxes, voters will know what to do. So the mantra is simple: 183 days, $200 million, Dec. 19.


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