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A tale of two leaders

Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Chicago Tribune

If you live in Cook County, you're going to be hearing a lot about taxes in the next few weeks. It's not good news: They're probably going up.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Cook County Board President John Stroger face some similar budget woes. Both are staring at large deficits for next year. The city has a $220 million hole; the county's shortfall is $146 million.

Both governments spend most of their budgets on salaries and generous benefits. In each case, personnel costs eat up about 84 percent of the corporate budget.

So if you're going to hold the line on spending, you have one place to look: your workforce. And that presents a long-standing problem for a politician in this town. Local government has had a long embrace with labor unions, which in the old days helped to make the Democratic machine hum.

Two political leaders, two similar problems. Yet Daley and Stroger have handled them very differently. While the mayor has quietly and methodically confronted labor unions and pressed for concessions, such as changes in work rules, reductions in overtime and wider privatization of city services, Cook County has been the land where time stood still.

Daley has gradually put some distance between the unions and the city, cutting personnel and overtime, changing work rules and privatizing city functions. These decisions would have been heresy during his father's day, when union members, city employees and political workers were one happy fraternity.

So it was not a great surprise to hear labor leaders gripe in Sunday's Tribune that the mayor has been unkind to them. Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon said it has been a "one-way street" with Daley and said "the workers feel the heavy hand of his administration."

Between 2000 and 2004, the city cut its full-time personnel contingent by 6.1 percent, according to the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group.

Meanwhile, over the same time period Cook County cut its payroll by just 2.2 percent, according to the Civic Federation. That is not because Cook County was already a lean, mean machine. Far from it.

On the county side, Stroger has been frustratingly slow to embrace the need to modernize work rules and other personnel management practices. He has not been a fan of privatization, though he did, begrudgingly, turn over operation of the county-owned golf courses to private firms. The immediate improvement in their performance has been remarkable.

Daley is no alchemist. He is pushing for some tax hikes to cover the hole in his budget and lobbying for a casino in the city. It would be terrific to hear the aldermen who are griping about this budget suggest some ways they'd like to trim spending more than the mayor has proposed.

But the fact that Daley has and continues to press for reforming work rules, privatizing city services and other cost-cutting measures makes it easier to look kindly on his tax proposals.

And Cook County? Stroger hasn't put his budget out yet, but he's eyeing a mix of sales-, hotel- and cigarette-tax increases.

Stroger will throw in some budget cuts. But until he gets on board for a fundamental reshaping of county government--ideas galore are out there--the answer on higher taxes for Cook County has to be firm and emphatic: No.

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