Andy Shaw: Cook County overlooks savings as it hikes sales tax

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Be like Mike, Madam President.

Like a tall shadow in a blue suit, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle confidently defended her controversial plan to increase the county’s sales tax by 1 cent at a public hearing last month.

She shook hands with a chorus of supporters — clergymen, county workers, retirees, union leaders and suburban mayors — whose comments echoed her rationale for restoring the penny she campaigned to eliminate in 2010: The county needs nearly half a billion dollars to cover a pension shortfall, debt repayments and infrastructure needs.

OPINION

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They called Preckwinkle “bold” and “courageous” for taking “the bull by the horns” — not “kicking the can down the road” or waiting for a state bailout — and last week, after a lengthy debate, county commissioners narrowly concurred.

Preckwinkle’s masterful lobbying job included a pledge to roll back part of the increase — around $200 million — if state lawmakers approve pension reforms.

But she and the commissioners don’t have to wait for Springfield — they can revisit now-Congressman Mike Quigley’s 2003 reform plan, when he was a county commissioner from the city’s North Side.

Quigley’s “Reinventing Cook County” highlights more than 40 potential efficiencies, including consolidating departments, tapping new revenue streams, eliminating programs, transferring services and cutting expenses.

He projected savings of more than $130 million a year, or $170 million in today’s dollars.

Several suggestions have been tried, and a few require state legislation or local government cooperation, but many are clearly within the County Board’s purview. For instance:

  • Quigley projected $36 million in savings by controlling overtime, which continues to be a problem, as evidenced by a $240,000 OT bill for 1,300 County Jail employees who called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday or the next day.
  • He envisioned up to $32 million in reduced jail costs by expanding home monitoring.
  • His report projected $24 million in savings by transferring the sheriff’s patrol of unincorporated county areas to local municipalities, and another $10 million by off-loading maintenance of county highways to local governments.
  • He estimated savings of $8 million by eliminating a county boot camp that mirrors one the state operates; $8 million by trimming consultant fees; $7 million by privatizing the delivery of court summonses; and $3 million by merging property tax administration into one office.

In 2012, the County Board talked about and discarded a couple Quigley recommendations, including a slam dunk: Merging the paper-pushing functions of two offices — Recorder of Deeds and County Clerk — into one, to save up to $1 million.

Other Quigley proposals are more challenging, but the same Preckwinkle supporters who praised her tough choice on the sales tax should implore her and the commissioners to consider additional reforms that can cut costs, generate revenue and make county government more efficient.

Preckwinkle knows how to streamline — she’s cut the county payroll by 8 percent, reduced health costs by $225 million, and come up with $70 million in savings and new revenue by sharing purchasing and service delivery with the City of Chicago.

So let’s take the next step by dusting off the Quigley report and figuring out what’s feasible today. That could pave the way for a sales tax rollback without relying on Springfield.

As I said to begin this column: Be like Mike.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: Follow @andyshawbga

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