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Cook County Headed for Financial Crisis Again

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Cook County Headed for Financial Crisis Again

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger

Political hostilities and financial troubles continue to loom over Cook County.

Because of past financial problems, the county is currently cutting back many key services.

The cuts have hit hard at hospitals, clinics and the Public Defender’s office.

In spite of all the cuts, it appears the county is now once again headed for a financial crisis.

And at yesterday’s board meeting, it was clear a solution may be a ways away.

Chicago Public Radio’s Ben Calhoun reports.

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At the meeting, well before anyone compared the county’s finances to the Titanic... or made a joke about life jackets.

Board President Todd Stroger wanted to take the first crack at the county’s money problems.

STROGER: Good Morning... [GAVEL]

Stroger’s admitted the financial picture isn’t good.

But he also wanted to let people know that he doesn’t appreciate the tone some of his critics have been taking.

He accused them of personalizing and politicizing the county’s problems.

STROGER: Doing so is good politics. It is good theater. And it is good for headlines and for TV. But it is not good government.

Stroger’s bottom line was a call for cooperation and compromise to fix things.

STROGER: That includes relying on all of us to look beyond our differences and keep our eye on the prize.

But as the meeting went on, it was clear that the depth of the county’s financial troubles—and the political rifts in the board are likely going to get worse before they get better.

People agree on some things.

They agree that there have been mistakes in how the Stroger administration has managed the budget.

They agree that money isn’t coming in and going out exactly as planned.

But with the financial picture getting bleaker, commissioners and the Stroger administration are operating with some fundamental differences.

DUNNINGS/QUIGLEY: Can you site those for me commissioner? Absolutely [INAUDIBLE] Are you telling me that there’s nobody at 100-percent of their overtime use.

At one point... Stroger’s C-F-O Donna Dunnings and Commissioner Mike Quigley couldn’t even agree on how much money has already been spent.

Some commissioners like Quigley say the year isn’t even half over—and some departments have already tapped out funds that were supposed to last all year.

An obvious concern when it comes to the year-end deficit.

Quigley and Dunnings couldn’t agree on how many departments are in that situation.

QUIGLEY: Well then you tell me as the county’s chief financial officer how many are at or near 100-percent already.

Dunnings named two.

But moments later, Quigley was holding up a revenue report... marked with no fewer than half a dozen florescent bookmarks.

QUIGLEY: These little yellow green whatever they are—flaps—all indicate items that are above, they’re over 100-percent expenditure for the entire year.

Quigley rattled off department after department that had already maxed out spending.

QUIGLEY: CCH Family planning overtime compensation 271-percent of the budget spent.

More than anything the county’s growing money troubles are feeding a powerstruggle between Stroger and Stroger’s critics on the board.

Yesterday there were several attempts to put pressure on the president.

STROGER: Commissioner Peraica.

At one point yesterday... Tony Peraica attempted to call a no confidence vote on Stroger’s leadership.

Stroger, however, was able to cut the idea down without debate because no one would second it.

STROGER: Is there a second? Motion fails for lack of a second [GAVEL]

But Peraica’s motion was just one sign that commissioners are increasingly at odds with Stroger.

After the meeting... critics like Commissioner Forrest Claypool suggested that the board return to Stroger’s budget and make changes.

CLAYPOOL: We can actually change this budget now... it’s not too late. Put nurses and doctors back in place, protect healthcare, prosecutors and police back in place. And pay for it by taking a big whack out of this patronage bureaucracy and do-nothing paper pushing jobs that you read about every single day in the newspapers.

Short of rewriting the budget... Claypool and others are trying to pressure the president in other ways.

Commissioner Quigley and several others are pushing a resolution that would prevent the Stroger administration from altering the budget without an okay from the board.

Quigley and others say Stroger and the budget office have made millions of dollars in changes to the budget—something critics say isn’t legal.

QUIGLEY: It’s still my belief that the president’s office hijacked the budget.

Stroger says his administration has changed the budget—but only in legal ways, and to keep it balanced.

Meantime, amid all these disagreements over the county’s financial condition—there’s a general sense that a solution remains a ways away.

Following yesterday’s meeting, Stroger was swarmed by reporters.

They asked Stroger about his controversial comments that he might try for a property tax hike for next year.

Even though the idea has been heavily criticized... Stroger looked into the cameras and said he’s still not ruling it out.

Then he added that if things continue going the way they’re going... even a property tax increase may not be enough to fix the county’s money problems.

I’m Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio

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