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Cook Co. expects nearly $200M budget shortfall

Saturday, August 13, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County budget planners are predicting a $186 million shortfall in the 2006 county budget that is sure to set off fierce debate this fall.

Last year's $73 million gap was debated for months as County President John Stroger lobbied for tax increases while contentious commissioners demanded cuts in staffing and other expenses. No tax increases were passed.

Stroger cautioned that the gap could increase as demands on the county health system continue to increase, federal money shrinks and a court decree forces the county to hire more jail guards.

The pressure may mean that Stroger has to increase property taxes for the first time in his administration.

"I have remained committed to reducing the reliance on property taxes to fund this government," Stroger said in a press release. "Unfortunately, though, everything is on the table this year because I will not turn my back on the medically indigent or our obligation to the county's public safety system."

County officials stressed that the budget estimate is very preliminary. Federal funding changes promised by President Bush have not been finalized. The county could lose up to $70 million of the $573 million expected for care of Medicaid patients at county health facilities.

More patients are using the increasingly overcrowded county hospitals, which are on pace to issue 3.8 million prescriptions this year, up from 2.9 million last year. Commissioners unhappy with delays at hospital pharmacies have been pushing for more and better paid staff.

Also unpredictable will be the demands of U.S. District Judge George Marovich, who met with Stroger and commissioners earlier this month about the Cook County Jail. Marovich oversees a consent decree stemming from a 1974 civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of inmates.

Last year, Marovich demanded the county hire 283 new correctional officers at a cost of $14 million.

"In last week's status hearing, the court made it perfectly clear to us that more corrections officers will be required this year," Stroger said. "While I do not know at this time what that number will be, I am prepared to adhere to the court's wishes."

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