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Smoking, hotel taxes once again are on Cook County agenda

Thursday, December 15, 2005
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: As they do every year, county officials are calling for higher taxes to pay for higher spending. Property taxes will remain level, but the Stroger administration wants to double the cigarette tax and create a hotel tax.
WE SAY: Enough is enough. The county board must cut spending rather than looking to the taxpayers to bridge the gap.

The rest of the country is arguing over whether to call this the "Christmas season" or the "holiday season."

In Cook County, we all know it as "the tax increase season."

County board President John Stroger on Monday announced that he's not seeking a property tax increase after all, contrary to his warning of a few weeks ago that a property tax hike would be needed. But it is tax increase season, after all, so Stroger said he wants a cigarette tax increase of $1 a pack, doubling the county share to $2; and he wants a new tax on hotel bills of 2 percent.

As he does every year at this time, Stroger said, "We have cut everywhere possible without impacting services. But if we are to fulfill our mission ... we will need new revenue."

A Stroger spokeswoman said budget planners reduced a deficit initially estimated at $307 million to $95 million by cutting travel and overtime appropriations, and by reducing funding for vacant positions.

But there remains a $95 million gap between anticipated revenues and expected spending, so the Stroger administration is turning to smokers and visitors to pay the difference.

Stroger is likely to face a battle over the proposed tax increase, as he did last year — and rightly so. An alliance between Republicans and independent Democrats last year forced Stroger to cut proposed spending and tax increases, and with an election coming in the spring, a similar battle is expected this year.

Forrest Claypool, a member of the county board since 2002 and a candidate for county board president in the Democratic primary, called the hotel tax "unnecessary" and said the county payroll is "bloated."

Each year since 2002, commissioners have challenged proposed tax increases. Early on, Stroger accused Claypool and other new board members of being uninformed and too green around the gills to understand the budget and the need for more taxes.

But this is the fourth budget for the new crew of board members, and the "inexperience" claim no longer holds water. Stroger and his staff cannot simply expect to raise taxes every year. Taxpayers — even pariahs like smokers — can't be expected to dish out more "revenue" to the county every 12 months. One would think Stroger, who is running for re-election, would be savvy enough to hold off on any kind of tax increase in an election year. But regardless, there comes a time when county officials need to say, "Enough is enough — we're not going to increase spending. We are going to cut expenditures that we can't afford to continue paying."

That time has come.

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