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Cook County Fri Dec 19 2008

Just a Little Matter of a Giant Budget...

Between the striking workers, the impeachment-ripe governor, and the CPS honcho being named President-elect Obama's Education Secretary, the news that Cook County intends to borrow millions in order to finance daily operations has sort of clung on to the end of news broadcasts and under newspaper folds -- but it's not nothing. Borrowing money -- in this case, $360m or so -- to pay for operating expenses is typically a terrible idea, but worse, when it's necessary it means you're in serious trouble.

Consider if you were forced to use a credit card to pay for your El rides, your lunch at work, your dinner, and your bills. The mere fact of your existence is pushing you further into debt. What can you do? You can either shrink your expenses or find new streams of income.

The Cook County Board passed a 1 percent sales tax increase earlier this year, making Cook County among the most expensive counties in the country -- so there's your new income stream. But that increase apparently wasn't enough, and Board President Todd Stroger is painting a dire picture of what will happen if we don't borrow this enormous sum: basic operations will cease. (Some of you may be wondering, "What exactly does the County do anyway?" They do stuff, trust me.)

Reform-minded Commissioner and regular Stroger gadfly Forrest Claypool, who represents much of the city's north side, sprang out of his seat and into the local press howling about the borrowing and how it represented not only terrible public policy (probably true) but also indicated the basic mismanagement by an administration that passes gigantic tax increases and then has to borrow money (definitely true). Let's also not forget that the first two budgets Stroger issued were filled with basic accounting errors. But what is Claypool's solution? According to the Chicago Tribune,

Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), a Stroger foe, contends the budget can be balanced and services maintained at current levels without borrowing.

I'd be interested to hear how. If he has this information, he should share it. His website doesn't detail a plan, although there are plenty of opportunities to email him or his fellow Commissioners or otherwise "get involved."

In Chicago's bifurcated political system ("machine v. outsider") it's easy to cast individuals as characters in a "narrative" -- Stroger the inept scion, Claypool the milquetoast goo-goo -- but, of course, it's never that simple. President Stroger faces a real financial morass, and while attacking his administration for obvious ineptitude (two do-overs for a budget is not a great way to start a public information effort) is great sport, without a well-articulated alternative or counter-program, it's just politics. And we get it, already, with the politics. How about some government?

Whatever your feeling about who should win the next election, the fact is that the County is facing a financial crisis right now. The county's general funds will be down to $0 or a deficit by next year; that is a serious problem. I agree with much -- though not most -- of the suggestions of the Chicago Civic Federation: transparency will lead to less waste, services that can be assumed by other governments should be, and reform of the pension board is probably a good long-term idea. But the folk remedies of "privatization" and tiering of pensions will have little impact.

If Commissioner Claypool has a plan that would maintain the current level of services -- including compensation for the county's service providers -- without borrowing money, he should share its specifics somewhere readily accessible to the public. Claypool is fighting the good fight on behalf of taxpayers, but with a budget that could end up saddling a generation of people with debt, picking a fight is not nearly enough.

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By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. More...


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