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County Board OKs $3 billion budget

Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
by ABDON M. PALLASCH

Just after midnight today, the Cook County Board passed a $3 billion budget.

To plug a $57 million deficit, board members hiked the Cook County tax on cigarettes, adding 82 cents to every pack starting April 1. That could make the price for a pack of cigarettes $5.63 with state, city and federal taxes.

Opposition-bloc board members held up Board President John Stroger's budget for three months, refusing his requests for a sales tax hike and a new lease tax. The said they wanted him to cut fat in the budget instead of passing new taxes.

In the end, they got only $5 million in cuts. Stroger plugged the rest of the hole with the cigarette tax hike and $20 million in what critics called "miracle money" Stroger's Finance staff presented Monday morning.

"They pulled $20 million out of their ear 30 minutes before the budget vote from obscure accounts nobody ever heard of before," said Commissioner Forrest Claypool. "The $20 million of money that just materialized at the last minute just proves that this is a padded, Enron-style budget. There are tens and tens of millions of dollars stashed away in hidden accounts."

The money came from the "Unknown Heirs Legal Settlement" -- $14 million -- and the "Treasurer Indemnity Fund Escheatment" -- $6 million. That is unclaimed money from estates of people who died without close relatives making claims.

"It's magic," Board member Tony Peraica said with a smile. "Rather than cut expenditures, they use smoke and mirrors."

But Stroger defended his approach, saying he was not prepared to cut medical personnel at the county hospital and denying there is any fat to cut in the budget. Stroger says he has cut personnel and held the line on property taxes for the last five years in a row. The county's bond rating has never been higher.

The lion's share of Monday's cuts -- $3 million -- came from Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan's budget: $75,000 less to board and lodge jurors, $450,000 less from "personal allowances not otherwise classified."

As Stroger challenged Sheahan to cut his budget, Sheahan pulled four of the five sheriff's police officers that served as Stroger's bodyguard/drivers. Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine took another $800,000 in cuts and Chief Judge Tim Evans cut $200,000.

Peraica referenced a Monday Chicago Sun-Times story about state's attorney vehicles sitting idle in a garage at the Criminal Court building in his argument that there was fat to cut in the budget.

"There's been 30 cars sitting idle for months," he said.

Commissioners started their meeting at 10 a.m. Monday and went past midnight. They broke from 1:15 p.m. to 4 p.m. so commissioners could attend Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal's funeral mass.

Opposition-bloc commissioners scored one victory: $500,000 for an Access to Care health program in the city of Chicago. Stroger said it was designed for the suburbs. The opposition commissioners lost 10-7 on a vote to make county departments live within their 2003 budget.

 

 



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