Budget stalemate could bring gov't shutdown

February 27, 2008 3:14:39 PM PST
Can the Cook County Board come up with a compromise deal on their budget by Friday? Board president Todd Stroger wants to raise the sales tax to pay the bills. But other board members want budget cuts.

The Cook County Board's finance committee met into the late afternoon Wednesday, locked in a stalemate, all the tax increase proposals taken off the table. Major budget cuts and layoffs could begin in Cook County as early as next week. Wednesday afternoon, the full tax increase forces made an 11th hour appeal to save county jobs and services.

"The studies have shown we cannot continue the hospital. We cannot continue this government without new revenues," said Joan Murphy, (D) Cook County commissioner.

The pro-sales tax commissioners, backed by board president Todd Stroger, are still one vote shy of getting their 1.25 percent increase. Without it, Stroger says his administration will have to cut spending by 18 percent in all departments, including the county's Bureau of Health which operates three public hospitals and over a half dozen clinics.

Forrest Claypool, one of nine anti-tax commissioners, says he believes Stroger is bluffing.

"I think clearly there's a political strategy here to try to create a doomsday scenario to justify an unjustifiable tax increase that will hit working people at a time when we are in the recession and most families are struggling from paycheck to paycheck," said Forrest Claypool, (D) Cook County commissioner.

"I will meet with them whenever they want and they know that. It's not me. I talk with them all the time and say what do you want and this is what we have to have to keep the government running," said Todd Stroger, (D) Cook County Board president.

Cuts would mean longer waits at hospitals, and clinic shutdowns, as well as 700 layoffs, including state's attorneys, public defenders and sheriff deputies.

"If it's an 18 percent cut, that's a drastic number of our membership that will be at risk to be laid off," said Dennis Gannon, Chicago Federation of Labor.

Commissioner Roberto Maldonado remains a possible swing vote in the stalemate. He opposes a sales tax increase while supporting other taxes on fuels, alcoholic beverages and hotel rooms that the pro-sales tax commissioners refuse to support.

"If my fellow members do not to vote for any of my proposals, so be it. I have to respect their vote," said Roberto Maldonado, (D) Cook County commissioner.

By law, the county has to have its budget in place by Friday at midnight. That budget must either be enhanced by taxes, or new revenue, or it must reflect cuts in services. If the stalemate continues past midnight Friday, then by law, the county has to shut down all but essential services.

Health care professionals and religious leaders protested before the county board meeting Wednesday morning.

Protesters want to save Cook County Health Services. They say wait times for diagnoses, prescriptions and operations have increased due to budget cuts last year.

More cuts are being considered for this year. The protesters are calling on the county commissioners and President Stroger to restore and reform the Bureau of Health.