Commentary

County Needs to Cut Spending, Not Borrow

By Nicole Neily
This article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on November 28, 2008.

Call it “Groundhog Day.” On Tuesday, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger released his annual budget. Reporting a deficit of $740 million, this merely confirms earlier rumors streaming out of 118 N. Clark about the dire financial straits the county faces.

Again.

For residents with short memories, the county issued the same warnings last October, when the 2008 budget was unveiled; the county faced a $239 million shortfall. Stroger threatened agencies with cuts and asked department heads to look for savings. Ostensibly, positions were eliminated, programs were streamlined and belts were tightened. In reality, the county added new hires — the president’s office alone swelled by an additional 593.6 employees (out of a net total of 1,130.3.) Talk about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Stroger’s brilliant idea to delay the inevitable is to borrow $740 million through bond financing. But guess what? A bond is a loan. Who’s going to pay off those loans, with interest? You. This past year, the county spent $183 million on bonds — a whopping 5.6 percent of its total budget.

According to its Web site, “The County presently performs three principal functions: the protection of persons and property; the provision of public health services; and general governmental services including, among others, the assessment of property, levy and collection of taxes and maintenance of certain highways.”

Here’s a novel idea: How about sticking to those areas, doing them well, and cutting nonessential spending? Why not prioritize projects of the greatest importance to county residents; terminating the ones that are not crucial; making the county contracts system transparent, and hiring the most qualified workers, rather than the most connected? There’s more pork in the county budget than there ever was in the stockyards.

Maybe the county doesn’t need to be redistributing $135.6 million from hardworking taxpayers to nonprofits and municipalities like the Village of Wilmette ($19,069 for Justice Assistance Grants over the past two years) or the University of Wisconsin ($2,085 in April for employee seminars under the community development block grant program).

Maybe a hospital system that’s hemorrhaging money should be privatized — or at the very least, taken out of Stroger’s hands.

Maybe the president doesn’t need an Office of Employment Training with a budget of $5.3 million.

Maybe the county’s law library, with a $5.1 million budget, could be more affordably managed by one of the many law schools in the area.

But let’s be honest: that’s not going to happen under this administration. Spending won’t be cut, and if it is, it won’t be in departments controlled by the boys in charge. After all, 52 percent of the county’s general funds are spent by offices under the president.

By the county’s own estimates, 22 percent of its revenue comes from property taxes. Across the nation, 2008 property tax collections have fallen as real estate has lost value and houses have gone into foreclosure. It’s the same story in Cook County. Other municipalities anticipated shortfalls and began cutting nonessential spending several months ago — but not here.

Cook County’s revenue base is broad enough that lower property tax revenues shouldn’t make the sky fall. The other 78 percent of the county’s budget still accounts for $2.5 billion — larger than the GDP of a number of small countries, per the CIA Factbook. So where does the money go? As far as anyone can tell, the welfare of Cook County residents hasn’t increased substantially over the past year. In fact, the county government is poorer than ever.

Taxpayers are going to bear the brunt of county officials’ fiscal imprudence.

As he woke up again and again at 6 a.m. on Groundhog Day, Bill Murray told us the day was gonna be cold, it was gonna be gray and it was gonna last the rest of our lives. But eventually he woke up on Feb. 3. Here in Cook County, we’re not so lucky.

Nicole Kurokawa, a Chicago native, is author of the 2008 Piglet Book examining waste in the Illinois budget, and a forthcoming study on waste in the Cook County budget.