Editorial: Financial transformers needed for Chicago, Cook County government

Monday, July 26, 2010

Illinois is broke: $13 billion in debt. Chicago, too, is looking at a $700-million budget gap and busily spending 75 years' worth of parking-meter money as fast as we can swipe our credit cards to pay the higher parking fees. Metra and the CTA's finances are in tatters; public schoolteachers are being laid off by the hundreds.

It's time for a transformation — and not the movie kind, though we welcome the estimated $20-million influx from "Transformers 3."

Governments are in financial collapse. This far-reaching fiscal crisis shows we can no longer afford "the way it's always been" — namely, overlapping government agencies, many with their own taxing power and most with a thick layer of patronage, waste and corruption.

We can't cost-cut our way to where we need to be, even by axing grandma's free bus rides.

Instead, leaders need to rationalize government. Consolidating and eliminating superfluous offices (sorry, we can't fund both a town and a township government for your little burg) will no doubt be politically painful, if not disastrous, for those leading the charge. But we see little other hope to bring costs in line with revenues. A strong move toward regional government could be a revolutionary, swan song cause for Mayor Richard M. Daley in his final term, whenever that is.

Combining services brings economies of scale that add up to vast savings in payroll and infrastructure, but think, too, about amping up purchasing power for lower prices on trucks, computers and even energy. More than half the population of Cook County lives in Chicago, yet two costly government bodies rule. The infamous sales tax increase brought talk of border towns seceding from the county. Other villages have asked the county to take over their policing duties. Those proposals failed, but the thinking behind them wasn't completely wrongheaded: We shouldn't be desperately slicing services and raising taxes to feed bureaucracies that don't work anymore.

Nipping around the edges isn't going to do it. It's time to restructure government.