Cook County's tough new era of budgeting

 
Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 11/15/2011 8:39 AM

If all goes as it should, something astonishing in the annals of Cook County government will happen this Friday. For the second year in a row, the county budget will decline, the county board president will keep a campaign promise and the entire process will move forward on schedule.

That the final product will look somewhat different from the budget proposals county board President Toni Preckwinkle rolled out in late October is something of a given, but even that is a sign of the important changes taking place. Preckwinkle is pressing some painful measures on all interests in the county, but her willingness to at least listen to the people affected and their recognition of their responsibility to share in the sacrifices are combining to create a new attitude toward spending.

 

Case in point: "special service areas." This is the name Preckwinkle gave to unincorporated regions sprinkled throughout the county that require government services, especially police protection. In her original proposals for fiscal year 2012, Preckwinkle was set to impose a special tax that could have added about $150 to individual property tax bills of people living in these regions. Suburban representatives like county Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican, protested, urging more study before implementation of the tax, and Preckwinkle, a Chicago Democrat, relented, withdrawing her proposal in exchange for establishment of a task force that will study the costs of providing the services and recommend a permanent, fair solution.

Similarly, when various interests protested Preckwinkle's intention to initiate parking fees at county courthouses, the president modified her plan and agreed, wisely, to exempt at least law enforcement personnel, jurors and early voters. On another key spending component, Preckwinkle also remains flexible. She intends to lay off more than 1,000 county employees -- but hundreds of those layoffs could be staved off if unions agree to reasonable changes in work rules.

The president's expectations disappoint individual county offices and departments, nearly all of which submitted requests for increased spending in 2012 in spite of her calls to hold the line. But they represent the kind of spending-vs.-revenue balance that has been desperately missing from county finance for decades. And, to their credit, county officers, while energetically asserting their separate cases, are generally modifying their approaches to reach reasonable compromises.

Is there room for still more cutting? No doubt. More efficiency can always be found in any large organization, and Preckwinkle's plan is not without its optimistic stretches -- can more home monitoring really cut the county jail population by 1,000? -- and its "revenue enhancements" -- notably, increases in alcohol and tobacco taxes. But, reflecting Preckwinkle's commitment to eliminate the hated Stroger tax increase, the $2.94 billion Cook County 2012 budget proposal is hundreds of millions of dollars smaller than the $3.5 billion budget of just two years ago.

It comes from an administration that shows an impressive balance between firm resolve and reasonable accommodation, working with an organization whose leaders, despite some notable old-line exceptions, are equally committed to operating responsibly and efficiently.

And it's worth noting that, for whatever complaints this budget has attracted, the process has not suffered from the acrimony and animosity seen elsewhere in politics. Indeed, we can think of some government leaders about 200 miles south or 700 miles east who could take a lesson from what's happening in Cook County -- and we hope school, municipal and county agencies all throughout the suburbs are paying attention, too.