Facing mounting criticism of his stewardship of county government, Cook County Board President John Stroger on Thursday proposed a 2004 spending plan that includes a sales tax increase and a new lease tax to close a gaping budget deficit.
Although Stroger has long been accustomed to having his priorities rubber-stamped by the board, a newly emerging bloc of insurgents immediately vowed to fight the tax proposals and said they have rounded up enough votes to stop them.
The release of the proposed budget came less than two weeks after the fatal fire in the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop, which has greatly increased scrutiny of the three-term president. And, in an acknowledgment of the fire's impact, Stroger preceded his budget remarks by asking for a moment of silence in memory of the six workers who died of smoke inhalation while trying to escape a locked stairwell.
Despite the budget problems, Stroger pledged to spend whatever it takes to make sure county buildings are safe.
"I fully intend to provide the necessary funding to install ... life-safety systems, including sprinklers, to ensure a safe environment for our employees and the public," he said.
The $2.99 billion budget he proposed for the fiscal year beginning Dec. 1 holds the line on the county's portion of the property tax levy but still represents a 4.3 percent increase over current spending, a rise that Stroger blamed largely on higher wages and health benefits.
But several commissioners, including some of Stroger's fellow Democrats, said he had not done enough to squeeze out inefficiencies and cut costs.
"This is the 'Groundhog Day' of budgets," said Democratic Commissioner Mike Quigley, who recently released his own study of how to save money by restructuring county government. "It never changes. You wake up and the new budget is out, and it's the exact same thing as the old budget. And we learn nothing."
Stroger had said he needed to close a roughly $100 million budget hole. To do that, he asked commissioners to approve an increase in the county's portion of the sales tax from .75 percent to 1 percent. If they agree, that would bring the total sales tax on merchandise purchased in Chicago to 9 percent and to at least 8 percent in suburban Cook County, where overall sales tax charges vary from municipality to municipality.
The sales tax hike would only generate an estimated $11 million in 2004 because it would not take effect until July 1 and there's a 90-day collection lag from the state.
New tax on leased items
If approved, the new 4 percent lease tax would take effect in January and generate an estimated $47 million. It would primarily affect those who lease automobiles and computers, but it would affect other personal property that may be leased.
The tax is modeled after a 6 percent lease tax already levied in Chicago. City residents would be hit with both taxes on leases, Stroger said.
He said the county expected to get an extra $32 million in federal health care funds in coming months and that would be used to close much of the rest of the deficit.
"These are difficult times that require some hard decisions and some difficult decisions," Stroger said in the address to commissioners.
He pledged to hold the county's property tax levy at $720.5 million for the fifth straight year. He said his administration has not received the credit it deserves for reducing the county's reliance on property taxes since he took office in late 1994.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government watchdog, agreed that Stroger should be congratulated for keeping down the county portion of property taxes. Overall, however, Msall said the 2004 proposed budget falls short.
"We're disappointed that the county has not sought further operational efficiencies instead of tax increases," Msall said. "We just think that difficult but necessary cuts in personnel are needed to balance the budget in these difficult economic times."
Msall said Stroger has addressed inefficiencies and cut personnel but that other elected county officials need to do the same. Stroger should take a page from Gov. Rod Blagojevich and force the other officials to slash their budgets, Msall said.
"This is not a revenue problem for the county, this is an expenditure problem," Msall said.
Sheriff asked to make cuts
The one with the biggest budget outside of Stroger is Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who had requested funding for 100 new guards at the Cook County Jail.
Stroger rejected the request and said his budget also would seek a reduction in 40 other jobs from the sheriff's budget. Sheahan's staff bristled at Stroger's tone and said the sheriff had voluntarily agreed to cut 30 positions, including clerks, janitors and an elevator operator.
"The sheriff in recognition of the county's fiscal crisis agreed to the elimination of 30 non-sworn positions within his budget," said spokeswoman Sally Daly, adding that Sheahan will propose his own ideas for cost savings and revenue increases when he addresses the board. "The bottom line is the sheriff has grown tired of being the bad guy every budget season."
Under Stroger's proposal, Sheahan's budget would grow 3.6 percent to $421 million. The budgets of State's Atty. Richard Devine and Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown would increase 3.7 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively.
By far the largest budget under Stroger's authority is the Bureau of Health Services, which has a proposed increase of 6.9 percent to $884 million. Within that is Stroger Hospital, named after the board president, which opened in late 2002.
At the time, Stroger promised that the new facility would run more efficiently than the old Cook County Hospital it replaced and save taxpayers money. But the proposed 2004 budget for the hospital is $461 million, a 7.1 percent increase. The new budget includes 32 more positions for the hospital than were included in the 2003 budget when Stroger unveiled it a year ago.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin said Thursday he has told Stroger that he intends to comb the budget "line by line," a level of scrutiny that has rarely happened under Stroger. Both Suffredin and fellow Democratic Commissioner Forrest Claypool say that they have lined up nine votes -- representing a majority on the 17 member board -- to defeat the sales and lease tax proposals. Quigley estimated the number of sure "no" votes as eight, including all five Republicans on the board.
Suffredin and Claypool were elected to the board last year, and the 2004 budget is the first they have had a hand in vetting.
One key swing vote will be Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, a Chicago Democrat. Maldonado said Thursday that he will be carefully examining issues related to health care and public safety before coming to a decision on tax increases.
Commissioner John Daley, the brother of Mayor Richard Daley and chairman of the Finance Committee, said he supports Stroger's budget.