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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Secede from Cook County

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Why didn't someone tell us sooner that we could free ourselves from the clutches of Cook County?

Yes, it's legally possible, but practically impossible, for suburban townships to secede from the county and its oppressive taxes, bloated payrolls, insider dealings and pathetic leadership. Still, it might be worth the effort. After all, if you can't beat them, leave them.

Several Palatine government officials, pushed to the limit by the county's recent sales tax increase, which may send shoppers scooting across the county line into adjacent Lake County, are discussing secession as something more than a stunt. Lost business and lost sales tax revenues are the price that the village and its businesses may pay for Cook County's budgetary dereliction and other mischief.

State Sen. Matt Murphy and state Rep. Suzanne Bassi, both Palatine Republicans, have introduced legislation that would make it easier for townships to liberate themselves from the chokehold of Cook County President Todd Stroger and his County Board toadies. Under the legislation, the signatures of 10 percent of the voters in a township would force the township government to hold a secession referendum. If a majority of voters agree, it's bye-bye Todd. Other townships could follow.

But under current law, voters throughout Cook County would have to approve the disconnection, which is about as likely as the fresh scent of virtue wafting down Chicago City Hall corridors.

Indeed, chances aren't much better for the General Assembly passing this legislation. It has been consigned to the rules committees of both houses, the usual resting places for orphaned bills. Even if it came to a vote, you won't find many lawmakers around the state who would be prepared to upset the established political order by making it easier for indignant voters to carve up the existing government infrastructure.

But as dismal as the outlook for this legislation is, it's even more remote that Stroger and the County Board will reform themselves. Or that the county electorate—content to be lambs shepherded by scoundrels—will actually force reform.

In his splendid book "Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003," veteran political observer James L. Merriner shed some light on the likelihood of such an earthshaking event. It was as far back as 1877, when a do-gooder group called the Citizens Association wondered what its role should be after it achieved the seemingly impossible—the reform of the city's fire protection program. (Astonishingly, just six years after Chicago's Great Fire, City Hall graft, corruption, indifference and incompetence threatened to leave the city vulnerable to another great fire, a thought so horrifying that even the foes of reform couldn't stop it.) So, basking in the warmth of fire protection reform, association President Murray Nelson suggested, "Should an honest board of the commissioners be elected, then possibly the association would be of no more service to the city."

The association, like other reformers, is long gone, but the County Board survives as it was, its insider members laughing up their sleeves at the futility of suckers who think everything should be on the legit. Steeled by such invulnerability, they hardly pause to pass outta-sight budgets and taxes.

Believing that he can throw any insult at taxpayers without consequence, Stroger commits one outrage after another—a big raise for a relative here, a job for a pal there.

With great prescience, reformer Nelson noted, "Reformers won't stay mad for more than six months," a truth that gives Stroger and his cronies every benefit of time. I've never been one to believe that tinkering with the form of government will ensure reform. So, I'm not convinced that a bunch of disgruntled townships dropping out of Cook County will ensure good government. But there comes a point—America's founding fathers once arrived at that place—when the imperative of restructuring existing governmental institutions becomes manifest. Without trying, we'll never know what a secession movement can accomplish. And even if all a secession movement accomplishes is to cause a few rashes at the County Building, it's worth the effort.

1 comment:

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

The comments about Cook County's tax increase have all been one-sided. While they raised the sales tax 1%, they cut the budget by 4%. Nor were they alone in their tax hike. Dupage County, for example, raised its sales tax half a percent, an event that received no media coverage.

Their biggest problem is that they run an extensive health care system. Costs in that sector have been going up far faster than inflation or tax revenues. Worse yet, almost 20% of their patients are from the collar counties, which pay nothing to support the system. One thing that came out of the budget deal will be an independent health care system. I hope the new director negotiates agreements with other counties so that they no longer have a free ride.