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County tax hike in question

Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

One of Cook County Board President John Stroger's strongest allies on Monday dealt what may be a critical blow to Stroger's expected proposal of a property tax increase.

South Side Democrat Bobbie Steele said Monday she would certainly oppose any property tax increase and would likely oppose any other tax increase. Steele said she couldn't support a tax increase while staff at the county's public hospitals have "gotten into a lackadaisical mode" about collecting payment from patients.

Politics on the 17-member county board often boil down to Stroger and his supporters vs. a coalition of five Republicans and three rebel Democrats. Steele's defection apparently gives Stroger's opponents a solid nine-vote majority to block a tax increase.

With a $300 million projected deficit for the 2006 budget, Stroger has strongly hinted he will propose increasing property taxes for the first time in six years. A tax increase proposal of some sort is almost certain. Stroger's opponents have blocked his tax proposals for the past two years.

Although Steele said she had talked with Stroger last week, the president said Monday he was unaware of her position but would not be deterred from his budget plan.

"I will be doing what is morally and ethically right," Stroger said. "It makes it more difficult if that's her position, but it's kind of hard to think that someone who comes from a district where practically everybody is poor ... would want to shut down the hospitals."

Steele, often a staunch defender of the hospitals and their employees, said she talked with hospital staff at a meeting last week and decided they were lying to her about efforts to boost collections. Although the county's hospitals deal often with the poor, plenty of patients who can pay aren't given a bill, Steele said.

"Patients have told me they have offered to give their insurance card and they've been told, 'You don't have to pay, this is free,' " Steele said. "(Hospital administrators) are telling us what they think we want to hear, instead of telling us the truth."

Steele said she could be swayed to support a tax increase "if I can see that they're really, really trying to raise revenues."

But Stroger said he would not make any major changes to placate Steele and has already done what he can.

"I would like to see them do more, but we're running a hospital for poor people," Stroger said. "We're not running a Northwestern."

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