No Override for the ”Cook County Party of No”
A political showdown over the repeal of a sales tax increase that could have affected thousands of poor people countywide gave new meaning to the old cliché all’s fair in love and war— when the outcome may not be fair at all. As the battle raged over whether the Cook County Board would be able to muster up enough votes to override President Todd H. Stroger’s veto of the repeal, the future of the county’s health care system, county jobs and the impact on other services, hung in the balance.
Had the repeal stood, it would have meant slashing vital services and forcing the independent health board to shut the doors at Provident and Oak Forest Hospitals including the closure of many, if not most of the County’s neighborhood clinics where Blacks and Latinos live. In addition to that, possible cuts in public safety and job losses in a recession, would have been far too heavy of a price to pay. County officials also anticipated that departments would have been required to cut costs by more than 20% across the board.
In the end, Stroger’s veto was sustained. What’s frightening however, was the havoc a group of commissioners, most of them from the north side, could have caused, had the decision gone the other way. What this faction wanted was the repeal of a full sales tax increase of a penny on the dollar. A thorn in Stroger’s side since taking the job, his relationship to the commissioners has been akin to President Barack Obama’s struggles with the, “Republican Party of No,” where the commissioners offer more dissension than solutions in addressing county problems. In trying to offer solutions to the budget crisis and to keep the health care system running, Stroger’s proposed trimming the tax increase, anticipating federal stimulus dollars would make up the difference. But all of that fell on deaf ears Tuesday as the commissioners fought to sustain the repeal.
The course of events have been like a three-ring circus where political insiders say the goal was to embarrass Stroger as the next election draws nearer even at the expense of hurting the poor. Officials even expected the repeal could have resulted in a $245 million loss in revenue for the county overall affecting not only health care but public safety as well. But to even think that services could have been shut down because a group of battling commissioners more interested in politics than coming together to solve problems, is enough to make anyone shudder.
Throughout the course of events, the sales tax has always been controversial. What’s more interesting though is that while the flap over the hike has kept Stroger and the county in front of the issue, “ ‘ the city has raised nine different taxes in the last two years,’ “ Stroger told the Chicago Sun-times recently. In the same issue, the paper pointed out that the mayor has raised taxes, fines and fees by a whopping $329 million, including the largest property tax increase in Chicago history. In 2005, his $85.7 million tax package included a one-quarter of one percent increase in the Chicago sales tax—not that Stroger is trying to pick a fight with the Mayor, but the fact is, the idea of a tax hike is not county specific.
Political games and scoring points have to cease when it comes to people’s lives and the services they deserve. Even though it looks like Provident and Oak Forest Hospitals won’t be closed and despite the fact that other services will apparently remain in tact, the people should remain alert and refuse to allow political selfishness to get in front of what’s really important.
And it’s not just the public that needs to stay vigilant, but elected officials, represented by the people, need to stay alert as well. In this situation, many of the officials in the county whose budgets could have been affected by the repeal decided not to wade into the debate, choosing instead to remain on the sidelines. Publicly stating that said it wasn’t their job to get into the middle of the issue, one representative said, it’s the job of the commissioners’ and President Stroger’s “ ‘…to figure out how to fund government and make decisions about budget priorities,’ “ Eric Herman, spokesmen for Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan stated in the Chicago Sun-times recently.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown reiterated this message when she suggested it’s the Cook County Board’s mandated responsibility to run county government and that includes managing the county’s finances and budget in an effective manner. Staying out of the controversy didn’t make her indifferent towards the issue or how it would affect her constituents, she said. In fact, she said four years ago, she recommended that the Cook County Board of Commissioners establish a Citizens Budget Review Committee, comprised of professional individuals who would be charged with analyzing the annual budget and determining if there was wasteful spending. …Sounds like a good idea, but when the County Board ignored her advice, Brown said that’s as far as she went with the Board on the issue.
County Clerk David Orr didn’t necessarily want to get in the middle of it either. “…Stroger has not contacted me or my office about the tax repeal or his veto of the repeal,” he said, stating that, “he has been unable to get reliable budget information from the President’s office.” Orr said it was therefore “difficult,” to know how big of an impact it could have on his office, but if the commissioners overrode the president’s veto, the budget cuts could have ranged anywhere from 12 to 22 percent in his office. He added, he did believe, “Greater reforms and efficiencies are needed across the board.”
But creating greater efficiencies starts in an environment where there is better communication. And regardless of who reaches out to whom first, isn’t open communication a part of an efficient process? Yet a willingness to solve problems, and to communicate even when it’s difficult, regardless of who reaches out first, is rare in American politics.
Sheriff Tom Dart relied on the constitution when he talked about the possibility of cuts and how it would affect his office. “We would never ask President Stroger for advice on how to run the jail, so we don’t plan to advise him on how to run his government.” It’s up to the county board to decide how to fund county government and it’s up to the president to decide how to operate it. Nowhere in the sheriff’s job description does it say anything about doing either of those things. The sheriff’s job is to properly and safely run the sheriff’s department and, each year, convey to the board how much money we need to do those things. Last year, we told the county board we needed $430 million to run our department and they figured out a way to pay for it, as they do every year,” he said.
According to officials, the impact on the 2010 budget could have had a total cut of $136 million, out of a total budget of roughly $1.066 billion for public safety. So Dart may have been right. It’s not his job either, but in terms of feeling safe, the cuts could have affected us all.
Treasurer Maria Pappas said she could live with the cuts if the tax is repealed because she produces $7 million a year from a self-funding account. “So, if they want a cut, I’m producing my own revenue…I’m not for these bond deals…the $300,000 we need for bonds can come from my own [self-funding] account…” she said. And a spokesperson for the Board of Review, Thomas Jaconetty, said any cuts would have had “an adverse impact,” on his office but he wanted to, “take some time,” to respond to the issue after the Board’s meeting on Tuesday. Anything else would have been “premature,” he said.
The elected officials who took a back seat on how this issue could have impacted the poor, missed an opportunity to show leadership in this situation. Even though for now, the repeal is a non-issue, the people who could have been affected, went un-represented for the most part by the public officials they decided to elect.
The question posed to Dart, Orr, Brown and the others had less to do with job descriptions and the constitution or where the buck stops in terms of whose running what. It had more to do with the people and the folks who would be affected by cuts in the budget if those cuts remained a possibility. To some extent the officials we talked to are correct. There is no legal obligation to address the issue and they were right, it’s not in their job descriptions. But what about a moral and ethical responsibility, if not a legal one? At what point does morality and ethics in politics come into play? At what point do factions at war against the Cook County Board President put down their differences and oppose the label of the, “Cook County’s Party of ‘No,’” and stand up for what is right for the people— even if they do not live on the same side of town as they do?