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County budget blasted by everyone

Saturday, January 07, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County leaders got it from both sides Friday during a public hearing about the proposed 2006 county budget.

Health advocates praised a $1 increase in the cigarette tax while tobacco sellers warned of dire consequences. Union leaders said more employees were needed, while government watchdogs urged further cuts.

Commissioners gave the coldest shoulder to tobacco distributors and the Civic Federation, a watchdog group, both of whom criticized the increased tax.

The cigarette tax, which will also be expanded to other kinds of tobacco for the first time, is expected to generate $75 million for the county and is the only tax increase.

The $3.1 billion budget would cut 82 vacant positions from the county's 25,400-person work force.

Tobacco distributor lobbyist Harry Kelley said distributors would lose business to neighboring counties and too high a tax would lead to a black market on cigarettes.

"We'll create an illicit atmosphere," Kelley said. "You don't want to go back to Prohibition."

"How do you explain that you made these same claims two years ago (when the county raised the cigarette tax) ... and they weren't true?" Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago) replied.

Cigar distributor Mike Gold said the county's tax on cigars and pipe tobacco will not generate as much revenue as the county projects and it will be impossible to enforce.

"This is a brand new tax, there's no history," Gold said. "It will be extremely cumbersome for us."

County revenue director Barbara Bruno said calculating the tax is not difficult with current technology and the county researched its projections thoroughly. She plans to handle collection of the tax with no additional staff.

Representatives of the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association endorsed the tax increase as a way to curb smoking.

"This is a win-win both for public health and the taxpayers of Cook County," the cancer society's Ermilo Barerra said.

Cook County nurses said public health was at risk from cuts proposed for the county health bureau. About three dozen nurses rallied outside the county building before the hearing, carrying signs that read "Budget cuts = Patient disaster."

"We have a shortage of nursing staff," Stroger Hospital nurse Bernice Faulkner said. "We don't even have enough staff to address our own policies."

Health bureau chief Daniel Winship said the county is better at hiring nurses than other hospitals in Chicago. But he said the hospitals have "a difficult time" finding enough staff.

"We don't claim that we're overstaffed and we struggle with the staffing issue of nurses," Winship said.

Other union employees also showed up at the county hearing to protest cuts. But Civic Federation president Laurence Msall said further cuts were needed. The federation is opposing the county budget for the third year in a row.

"Your personnel costs are out of control and growing at a rate no revenue source can fix," Msall said.

Commissioners challenged Msall, especially his recommendation that the county eliminate its systems of automatic regular "step increases" that bump up employee pay based on seniority and in addition to an annual cost-of-living increase.

"The step increases were implemented to try and bring some of our employees ... up to a livable situation," said Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago). "They're still making far less than other municipal employees."



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