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Proviso Probe

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

GOV, County Board fields complaints about Stroger budget

Most of the Cook County Board of Commissioners took testimony from citizens who were overwhelmingly county employees about President Todd Stroger’s proposed budget. The hearings began at 6:30 PM last night (Tuesday) in the Proviso East Auditorium and lasted past midnight. I left slightly after 11 PM. One hundred fifty people signed the list to speak. When I left the 70th person had not yet spoken.

Of the people who spoke there seemed to be agreement that new revenue was the answer. Some suggested the county health system be more aggressive at billing the state, insurers and patients. Others explicitly or implicitly argued for a tax increase.

Everyone agreed that Stroger’s proposed 17% across-the-board cuts would disrupt the services now provided. Although most of the speakers addressed health care, the sheriff’s department and the courts (State‘s Attorney, public defenders and deputy sheriffs). I don’t remember people speaking about the effects to the offices of the Clerk (David Orr), Treasurer (Maria Pappas), Clerk of the Courts (Dorothy Brown), the courts (judges), Recorder of Deeds (Eugene Moore, who was present) or the Board of Review.

Does this mean that these silent portions of county government can absorb the cuts with no disruption of services, like the Recorder of Deeds? Or were they less organized about getting on the list to give statements? Regular citizens who didn't sign-up in advance were effectively excluded from speaking because so many employees and insiders were pre-registered on the speaker's list.

Below are some of the major arguments being made about county government.

Commissioner John Daley, chair of the finance committee, said that if the other commissioners would go along with a tax increase the county wouldn’t be facing these cuts.

Most voters think property taxes are too high. And voters have shown serious skepticism about raising property taxes further in affluent liberal enclaves like Oak Park. The commissioners who oppose tax increases are almost assuredly representing the popular sentiments of their constituents.

Some have observed that homeowners can afford to be stingy about county services because the county’s services are largely used by the poor.

Politicians like John Daley can get behind tax increases easier because he is supported by a political machine funded by taxes. I suspect that there is a strong correlation between commissioners level of support for a tax increase and how much they benefit from patronage politics. Commissioners who rely on the political support of county employees support tax increases. Commissioners who rely on the political support of homeowner voters oppose tax increases.

The commissioners who are skeptical of tax increases want to see waste and graft cut. How much waste and graft is there? Many people sense that there is significant waste and graft. The tax skeptics see Stroger cronies getting hired at exorbitant salaries and they suspect that these cronies are being put in place to facilitate schemes to over bill the county for unnecessary consultants.

Tax increase supporters mostly ignored waste in county government. Although there were some specific criticisms of the department that is supposed to bill for health services.

Some speakers attacked the abstraction of managers with high salaries, but these attacks seemed quite vague. And often they were combined with attacks on the salaries of the commissioners, as if cutting commissioner salaries would make it unnecessary to implement any cuts.

Many of the speakers were angry with Todd Stroger. Some came with signs that said, “Where’s Todd?” But many of the speakers seemed to attack the board of commissioners. This seemed to mostly happen because they were the only ones in the room to be angry at. Although one speaker--who made a point of saying he did not vote for Stroger--argued that the crisis was created by decisions that were made before Stroger was elected and the county board deserved blame because they failed to act on problems earlier and instead just passed the buck.

Some specific observations that made sense.

A man from the probation officers union suggested cutting satellite offices and consolidating management.

If baby delivery services are cut at Southside hospitals women will not be able to travel to Stroger Hospital before giving birth.

Dr. Gordon Schiff questioned the move to ask ambulatory doctors to resign with only some of the doctors to be rehired. He said it looked like doctors would be hired back based on politics, not medical skills.

Schiff further suggested that savings by scrimping on medical services would be wiped out by one large malpractice lawsuit.

A physicians assistant and a nurse practitioner each suggested the county could save money by replacing physicians with physician assistants and nurse practitioners. The PA also complained that the billing department wasn’t billing PA hours because of some problem with the software.

And when an assistant state’s attorney thanked Commissioners Forrest Claypool, Anthony Peraica, Peter Silvestri and Larry Suffredin for their support of law enforcement--which seemed pretty innocuous to me--a couple of the other commissioners kinda wigged out. Daley ranted at the ASA and told him, “You don’t have a clue.” Commissioner Deborah Sims claimed all four of the commissioners voted against the budget last year and equated that to them wanting the State’s Attorney to get no money. Suffredin quickly pointed out that he voted for the budget. I think by the time it was over Sims acknowledged only two of the four voted against the budget.

Of course one could argue that the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the last budget is largely responsible for this year’s crisis. But Sims was probably more than happy to avoid the tough decisions until after she was re-elected to a new four-year term.

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  • I was there last night too. I really resent the false dichotomy of either raising taxes or cutting waste. I think that the solution is probably both. As a Cook County employee, I am aware that there is a lot of waste in the system, but I don't think that it is enough to overcome the deficit. However raising taxes without getting rid of the do-nothing Eighth Ward contributors drawing high salaries, would continue to enable a dysfunctional system.
    The budget as presented drips with contempt for the Cook County taxpayers. At every turn, when given the choice of cutting service or patronage, service suffers. To raise taxes to allow this to continue is incredibly offensive. Nevertheless, ultimately, you get what you pay for, and if we want decent services, you have to pay for them. The quality of the school system in Oak Park is the reason why taxes there are so high.

    By Anonymous walter mitty, at 9:39 PM, January 31, 2007  

  • Todd Stroger seems to be playing the game of looking like he's holding the line on spending while forcing the county board to raise taxes.

    Stroger's problem is that most everybody paying attention sees through the game.

    Stroger refuses to cut his people and he hasn't proposed realistic cuts.

    Stroger came to the table with little credibility. And his budget games have reduced what little credibility he had.

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 11:04 AM, February 01, 2007  

  • Carl,

    You're the one with little credibility. First of all, Mr. Stroger campaigned about cutting the budget, remember? The media and Commissioner Peraica ridiculed the very notion that Todd Stroger would dare cut personnell. President Stroger is making the tough decisions that most politicians run away from. He's taking all this heat and getting absolutely no credit for following through on his campaign promise of no taxes. People who are against him are just that, against him no matter what. They're the ones with absolutely no credibilty.

    By Blogger Provisoguru, at 10:37 PM, February 02, 2007  

  • First there are cuts that make sense and cuts that don't make sense.

    Stroger is asking everyone else to cut, but the people who contributed over $1,000 seem to be escaping cuts nicely.

    Stroger is not taking the heat for his cuts. He's sending the commissioners to these hearings to take the heat while he skips out.

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 11:28 AM, February 03, 2007  

  • Carl,

    Stroger is reducing his budget just as he's asking every other office to cut theirs. Furthermore, he actually let go one of his closest allies, Gerald Nichols, who made over six figures. That was another campaign promise he kept, although it was clear that he did not like it at all.

    As far as President Stroger not attending budget hearings, that's much ado about nothing. I'm told that the budget hearings are held by the Finance Committee chair, which is Commissioner John Daley. He is the head of the budget hearings. Only the sitting Commissioners are members of the Finance Committee. President Todd Stroger is not a Cook County Commissioner so it would be out of order for him to appear at a budget hearing when he doesn't sit on the committee. It would be like Mayor Daley appearing at an Ald. Burke held Finance Committee meeting in the Chicago City Council. It's like too many big dogs in the room. Besides, former President John Stroger didn't attend the budget hearings and he was a Commissioner.

    By Blogger Provisoguru, at 7:41 PM, February 03, 2007  

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