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Stroger should press for cuts, not tax hikes

Monday, August 22, 2005
Crain's Chicago Business

Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr. is sounding budget alarms again and broadly hinting he'll try to close the gap with a tax hike.

In language clearly intended to set the stage for such a move, Mr. Stroger issued a press release Aug. 12 warning of a $186-million shortfall in the county budget for fiscal 2006. He blames the deficit on a litany of pressures on county finances:

Rising demand for prescriptions from the County Bureau of Health.
Threatened Medicaid funding cuts by the federal government.
The need to hire more Cook County Jail guards in the wake of a court decree in a lawsuit arising from jail overcrowding.
Rising wages and health insurance costs for county employees.
After patting himself on the back for "resist(ing) the urge to increase property taxes or cut services since taking office," Mr. Stroger signals that either or both may be coming. "Unfortunately, everything is on the table this year because I will not turn my back on the medically indigent or our obligations to the county's public safety system."

We agree that county finances are a mess, but Mr. Stroger's recent budgetary track record leads us to question his implication that tax or fee increases are the solution.

The board president's press release omits any discussion of last year's budgeting process, which Mr. Stroger opened with a call for higher sales taxes. When county commissioners objected and urged a 2% across-the-board expense reduction, he warned that such cuts would cripple the county's health care system.

Mr. Stroger lost that fight and the cuts were imposed. Last time we looked, the county hospitals and clinics were still taking care of patients and dispensing prescription drugs. In view of that episode, we suggest Mr. Stroger look harder for expense cuts before again seeking a tax hike.

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