County Budget: Is It Groundhog Day?

Stroger needs more money to avoid layoffs, plug pension hole

Nine months after pushing a controversial sales tax hike, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger says he needs more money to avoid masssive layoffs of county employees and to close a hole in the county pension fund.

His proposed $2.9 billion budget holds the line on spending and includes no tax increases, but critics immediately said it won't work without significant borrowing or further spending cuts, and some commissioners are hoping mad that just after passing the $400 million increase, Stroger needs millions more.

The board begrudgingly approved a 1 percent increase in the county sales tax, which raised the sales tax in Chicago to the highest level of any major U.S. city, at 10.25 percent. Under the deal, the county portion of the sales tax increased from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent, WBBM-TV reported.

Back then, county officials said the tax hike was a rare move to keep county government running. They said without the tax hike, health and safety services provided by the county might be in jeopardy.

County officials said the tax hike was supposed to generate $400 million, but apparently it is not generating enough money.

Commissioner Mike Quigley said the call for more money is one he's heard before, and illustrated that point with a small stuffed animal.

"This groundhog basically reminds us that every year, the county budget basically remains the same. You wake up, and it's the same day over and over again," Quigley said.

Commissioners said they're especially angry about a letter that was sent out to all county retirees that basically warned them that pension funds are in jeopardy if Stroger isn't given the borrowing authority he seeks.

Stroger said the money is needed to plug a $104 million hole in the county pension fund.

Since the letter went out, phones at the county building have been reportedly ringing off the hook.

"I don't know how you look yourself in the mirror when you send a letter to a very vulnerable person and tell them they may not get a check next week," Quigley said.

The enmity is palpable, illustrated with a ticking clock posted to the Chicago Tribune's Web site which counts the days until Stroger can be voted out of office.

Stroger said he's proud of the job he's done and he said he's not worried about such timetables.

"If one of the papers, in its great wisdom deems they want to put a clock on me, so be it," Stroger said.

Stroger said he'll ask for a few days of furlough for county employees.

"I think what's going on now is that Todd Stroger is trying to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to get through his re-election campaign in 15 months, and then stick taxpayers with a second tax increase after the election," Commissioner Forrest Claypool said.

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