Incoming Cook County head: Budget has $487M gap

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Cook County, the second most-populous county in the U.S, will have a $487 million budget gap in the next fiscal year, the county’s incoming board president said Thursday.

CHICAGO (AP) — Cook County, the second most-populous county in the U.S, will have a $487 million budget gap in the next fiscal year, the county’s incoming board president said Thursday.

Board President-elect Toni Preckwinkle met with elected county officials — including Clerk David Orr, Sheriff Tom Dart and Treasurer Maria Pappas — and asked them to each cut their budgets by 21 percent over three quarters for the fiscal year after the budget is passed. That equals a 16 percent cut for each department for the year.

"I made it abundantly clear that no one would be absolved from having to make cuts and no one would be alone in making cuts," Preckwinkle told reporters.

She said the changes will start with her office: she’s taking a 10 percent pay cut, consolidating services and doing desk audits to see if there are any redundant positions.

More than half of the budget deficit — about $264 million — comes from a loss of revenue, mainly the rollback of a controversial half-penny sales tax Cook County Board President Todd Stroger tried to veto. He said it was necessary to protect the county’s $1 billion hospital and health care system.

The remaining shortfall is due to an increase in expenditures of about $223 million. That includes employee contract obligations and an approximately $55 million settlement over a class-action lawsuit alleging thousands of jail inmates had their rights violated when they were strip-searched.

Preckwinkle, who takes office next month, said the budget can be balanced if county officials cooperate.

"Other governments have done this, it is not impossible," Preckwinkle said, citing examples with municipal and state budgets in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio.

The transition into office for Preckwinkle, a Democratic Chicago alderman, hasn’t been smooth.

Stroger’s administration has been slow to respond to requests for information needed to assess the budget and other issues, said Preckwinkle’s transition chief Kurt Summers.

And Stroger has admitted that his first and only meeting with Preckwinkle earlier this month "didn’t go very well." He reportedly asked Preckwinkle to keep appointees from his administration, which she repeatedly vowed not to do while campaigning.

Preckwinkle, who has also said little was accomplished during the meeting, declined to comment about Stroger’s role in the transition and deferred questions to Summers.

His tenure has been marked by corruption allegations and patronage hiring, stemming back to how he got the job leading the county of 5.3 million residents. Only Los Angeles County has more residents, with nearly 10 million.

Stroger’s father, the late John Stroger, held the post for 12 years. And when he suffered a stroke in 2006, he had political insiders place his son on the ballot. The younger Stroger won.

Recently, Stroger’s former top aide was charged with stealing more than $300,000 in taxpayer money.

Stroger did not return a request for comment Thursday. In the past, he has denied any wrong doing or ethical lapses. He has not been charged with any crimes.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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