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New county sales tax for museums?

Monday, May 15, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

Citing "serious funding issues" confronting Chicago's museums and other area cultural institutions, a civic task force is recommending a new Cook County sales tax.

Property taxes, currently used to help support museums and zoos in the city and Cook County suburbs, would be cut under the plan contained in a study to be released today by the Civic Federation, an influential government watchdog group.

The 0.25 percent sales tax plan would add 25 cents to a $100 purchase, while cutting about 6 percent from the Chicago Park District levy and 8 percent from the Cook County Forest Preserve property tax take, said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.

The owner of a city home with a sale price of $300,000 would see a $39 drop in property taxes, according to Civic Federation calculations.

Jacqueline Triche Atkins, executive director of the umbrella group Museums in the Parks, said museums are getting more expensive to operate. Admission prices, already criticized by some as too high, cover only about 17 percent to 22 percent of revenues, she said.

Atkins, a member of the task force that produced the study, likened the financial condition of the museums to "the frog in the boiling water'' -- it's still hopping, but "the water is boiling away,'' she said.

In 2004, the major museums as well as Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden got about $65 million in operating subsidies from the city and county plus $18 million to pay off construction projects.

Under the sales tax plan, cultural institutions would get $65 million in operating expenses, plus $40 million in capital funds. Another $20 million would be funneled to new institutions.

Billed as 'fairer'

The proposed sales tax on general merchandise, food and drugs would be a "fairer" tax than property taxes because it is "a consumption tax based on one's ability to buy,'' Msall said. A significant part of the sales tax would likely be paid by non-Cook County residents, he added.

The taxing district could be created by either the county or the state. Msall acknowledged that launching any new tax would be difficult but said it could be sold as a way to address taxpayer complaints over property taxes.

The study's authors argue that even those who don't visit the area's main museums and zoos, plus the Chicago Botanic Gardens, have an economic stake: In 2004, the institutions drew about 13.3 million -- nearly double the paid attendance of the area's major professional sports teams. In 2002, they employed about 4,700 workers and annually generate more than $1.4 billion in economic activity.

Copyright The Sun-Times Company
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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