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County Commissioners Set to Tout Taxpayer Rebate Plan

Monday, November 24, 2003
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Cook County Commissioners opposed to President John Stroger's 2004 sales and lease tax hikes will unveil a proposal today that they say not only makes those hikes unnecessary but would rebate money to property tax payers as well.

Stroger's $2.99 billion budget, which is up 4.3 percent from the previous, has "a built-in fluff factor," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat.

Suffredin, along with commissioners Forrest Claypool, Mike Quigley, Anthony Peraica and Gregg Goslin, propose an amendment to Stroger's budget that would kill any tax increases. Claypool, Quigley and Suffredin are Democrats, as is Stroger; Peraica and Goslin are Republicans.

One of the ways Cook County can provide a rebate, Suffredin said, is by cutting spending by 2 percent.

"How do you do that without cutting services?" asked Caryn Stancik, a Stroger spokeswoman.

Suffredin offered an answer. Even if the votes aren't there for a spending cut, he maintained, there's still enough fat to painlessly avoid tax hikes.

First, he said, reduce the amount of money carried over each year in surplus funds. This year, $200 million will be carried over; last year, $217 million was carried over, Suffredin said. The commissioners estimate if Stroger's budget is left unchanged, $300 million will be left over at the end of 2004.

Cutting that surplus closer to the bone "doesn't diminish anything they're (Stroger's staff) trying to do" in terms of services, said Suffredin.

Besides disagreeing with the $300 million estimate, Stancik said the $200 million carry-over is already built into next year's budget. Of that $200 million, nearly $60 million represented revenue that came in above projections, Stancik said, implying that the county is not wildly overestimating its funds year to year.

Claypool pointed out unexplained jumps in certain areas of Stroger's budget. The self-insurance fund increased $11 million, for instance, and various other funds that got no money last year gained a total of $10 million in 2004. He'd like to know why.

"Clearly, there's an enormous amount of waste and bloat," he said.

The commissioners estimate they can not only eliminate the need for the $67 million in new taxes, but can also rebate $100 million to property tax payers.

Not so, countered Stancik. Although she did not have exact details, she said every increase in the budget, such as the self-insurance fund, comes from a historical perspective of what's paid out year to year and what's anticipated to be spent in the coming year.

If the county were to cut the self-insurance fund and run into a huge lawsuit, it would have no way to pay that judgment, Stancik said.

Budget: Self-insurance fund called into question



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