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County faces $300 million hole

Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County could see a tax hike next year now that a $300 million hole is projected in the 2006 budget.

The deficit, pegged at $186 million last month, grew as federal dollars shrunk, health care costs increased and a federal judge demanded the hiring of more jail guards, budget officials said.

"It's a big problem when you don't expect new revenues and you've already cut offices 2 percent," said the county's chief financial officer, Tom Glaser.

The $300 million deficit, 10 percent of the budget, is one of the worst ever, Glaser said.

County board President John Stroger said balancing the budget will not be possible without cutting services and raising revenues. Stroger has not raised the property tax rate since taking office in 1994 but said he cannot rule it out this time.

"Last two years we didn't add revenue, and the cost of government keeps going up. How much can we cut? I don't know," Stroger said.

Charged with running the courts, jails and public health system, Stroger likes to call Cook County the "government of last resort." The budget has been strained as more people without health insurance wind up at Stroger Hospital and other county facilities.

At the same time, administration critics continue to blast the government as bloated, accusing Stroger of allowing high overtime costs and excessive middle management.

Last year's projected deficit was $285 million at this point in the budget process, Glaser said, and was reduced to $73 million when Stroger presented his plan to commissioners.

Closing the $73 million gap became a political fight. Commissioners forced county offices to cut spending rather than adopt Stroger's tax and fee increases.

Glaser said it will be tougher to force more cuts, so the budget gap Stroger sends to commissioners is likely to be larger this year.

Commissioners who opposed Stroger's proposed tax hikes last year say they'll do so again this year.

"I think there's a little scare tactics going on here," said Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside). "I think we really don't know the exact figures."

 



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