Last week I wished Cook County commissioners luck in the quest to keep our tax levy from increasing drastically. They’ve done a pretty good job so far. From a 28 percent levy increase in April to an 11.2 percent increase in November, they’ve found a way to trim some expenses.
It would be nice if they could do more before the budget is finalized at the last county board meeting of the year on December 28. To do so commissioners need more than luck. They need the courage to make some tough choices and they need thick skin to face the inevitable criticism of those choices
But perhaps most importantly they need feedback from citizens on what can be cut and what the community can’t live without.
At a recent board meeting, Commissioner Frank Moe introduced an idea to reduce the county highway department budget by eliminating application of calcium chloride on the county’s gravel roads. Moe asked County Engineer David Betts if the $160,000 spent to keep dust down on unpaved roads was necessary.
The county engineer said yes, it is necessary. Calcium chloride is used for more than keeping vehicles dust free. Betts said applying calcium chloride reduces the amount of grading needed, saving money in labor and equipment costs. It also helps prevent washouts and ultimately decreases road maintenance costs.
So perhaps Moe’s idea is not feasible. But I admire the willingness to take a close look at county expenditures, to see if there are things we can live without.
This is where citizen feedback comes in. If you have an idea for a way the county could cut expenses, talk to your commissioner.
My husband Chuck has a pet-peeve that, if addressed could save the county some money. What is it that vexes him? The lights at the Cook County Community Center hockey rink—and more recently—at the tennis courts. Driving up First or Second Avenue West toward the school and YMCA late into the night, these arena lights are on. Often without a soul in sight.
If these lights were put on a timer or perhaps a motion detector to be used only when there were actually people using these county amenities, the county’s electric bill could be reduced. It’s a start.
I’ve heard from local business owners that the county could do more to make do with what they have. There are small business owners that are using desk chairs and file cabinets that they bought at yard sales years ago. There are entrepreneurs using hand-me-down copiers and telephone systems. And unfortunately, there are businesses that could use a new roof or windows or carpet, but delay those improvements because it’s not in the budget.
Perhaps the county could extend the time between replacing desk chairs and room dividers or between painting or changing window blinds. Not enough to reduce the budget alone, but every little bit helps.
I have a somewhat drastic suggestion. It’s not a novel idea, in fact, I’ve seen this budget cutting method numerous times in my working life. As an Army wife, I had a variety of jobs—library aide, retail sales associate, medical records clerk, cardiac rehab receptionist, secretary, customer service representative and more. In each of those jobs, at some point, management called for some kind of moratorium on spending.
At the library, when the end of the fiscal year was near, the librarian issued a directive— no new books or periodicals were to be ordered. The best sellers just had to wait. At the retail store, when sales didn’t meet goals, there were no new hires. Everyone pitched in to get the work done until finances improved. When the hospital I worked at reduced the cardiac rehab outreach budget, we temporarily halted our heart healthy education luncheon. As a secretary, there were times when a limit was put on office supplies. No, we didn’t need logo pens or fancy desk calendars.
The county board started down this path at the start of the budget process when it sat in meeting after meeting to talk about wants versus needs. Commissioners asked department heads to look for ways to cut their budget and some county staff found ways to do so.
The county board decided not to issue a mandate to department heads to make budget cuts. Commissioners noted that they didn’t want to micromanage or “nickel and dime” employees. I don’t believe they would have to. I think county staff, if asked to cut 2 percent or 5 percent from individual budgets could do so. It would take creativity, but it could likely be done.
There’s my idea. What do you think? What can the county do to keep our levy low? Let your commissioner know. As inflation rises and state and federal funding falls, they need all the help they can get. They need more than luck.
We must consult our means
rather than our wishes.