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Smokers hit hard by county pack tax hike; Stroger, Claypool continue war of words

Friday, February 10, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Mark Repasky

If you plan on buying a pack of cigarettes in Cook County after March 1, you better pack an extra dollar.

Commissioners voted 10-7 on Thursday to double the county's portion of the cigarette tax to a whopping $2. The move, expected to generate more than $70 million, was taken as the board tried to balance the $3 billion budget for 2006.

The county has been operating without a budget since Dec. 1, when the new fiscal year began, but it's required to have a board-approved budget by the end of February.

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The commissioners were able to approve the ordinance and 13 amendments before breaking for lunch.

The tax hike had been originally proposed by Board President John H. Stroger Jr., as a way to replace $70 million in lost federal health care funds.

All five Republicans on the board and Democrats Forrest Claypool and Mike Quigley voted against the proposal. Claypool is challenging Stroger in the March 21 Democratic primary for county board president. Quigley has signed on to Claypool's campaign as chairman.

Commissioners who opposed the proposal said it would hurt suburban businesses that border county lines and was not sound fiscal management.

"A tax like this, $1 a pack, is so radical and so sudden that it literally destroys [store owners'] life savings and throws out of work the people they employ," Claypool said.

The county's $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes is nearly half of the total of $4.05 in city, county, state and federal taxes on a pack of cigarettes sold in Chicago.

"Businesses are dying the death of a thousand taxes," said Commissioner Tony Peraica, R-Riverside. He called the cigarette tax "a tax that's going to kill businesses in this county." Peraica is the Republican candidate for board president.

But Stroger accused his opponents of playing politics.
"To make keeping these hospitals open a political issue, in my opinion is cruel, it's really cruel," he said. "This is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democrat issue. This is a human issue."

Also Thursday, commissioners were able to identify a way to pay for 250 new jobs, mainly guards, at the Cook County Jail. Board members have been under tremendous pressure to find additional money for guard positions since December, when U.S. District Judge George Marovich said the board had failed to meet the terms of a federal consent decree requiring additional guard positions. Marovich warned he could hold the entire board of commissioners in contempt if a plan to hire new guards was not in place by March.

Commissioners agreed to fund the positions by increasing revenue projections from the county treasurer and clerk of the circuit court. The $8 million bump in revenue projections gave the sheriff's office money to hire 229 correctional officers, 15 rehabilitation workers, and six investigators.

Although the offices of the county treasurer and clerk of the circuit court have exceeded their projected revenues in recent years, the measure increasing revenue projections was met with some reluctance. But faced with the judge's threat of contempt and no alternative options, the board passed it 15-2. Claypool and Quigley voted against it.

Quigley called the measure "fiscally irresponsible."

"This is a budget that doesn't lay a solid foundation for the county's fiscal future," he said. "It does two things: It readjusts revenue estimates, and it relies on a single product."
Later Thursday, commissioners turned down a proposal that would have consolidated administrative services at the three county hospitals - Stroger, Provident and Oak Forest. The plan, proposed by Claypool, would have saved the county $6.4 million.

Last year, during a two-day marathon budget session, the board passed an amendment that consolidated these services, but the 2006 budget recommendation prepared by Stroger included funding for separate units at each hospital.

Mark Repasky is a reporter for the Medill News Service



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