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Sales tax grab is too costly No good reason for 2-cent county boost

Thursday, September 27, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County seems to be in a big hurry to dip into the pockets of taxpayers. On Monday, county commissioners could be voting on a plan to add two cents to the county portion of the sales tax -- meaning Chicago residents would be paying 11 cents in taxes for most dollars they spend. If there's a convincing argument for raising the tax -- and voting on the matter so quickly, less than two weeks after it was proposed -- we haven't heard it.

Start with the fact the County Board President Todd Stroger hasn't even unveiled his 2008 budget yet. That means the county has scheduled a public hearing and a vote on a tax increase without detailing what the money will be spent on. It wasn't until Wednesday that his administration pegged the size of next year's deficit at $307 million. A two-cent increase in the sales tax could raise about $750 million.

That's an unusual way to go about winning public trust -- which should be a priority for any government that wants to raise taxes but especially for the Stroger administration. Stroger has been in office nearly a year, and taxpayers are still waiting for the bold reforms he promised when he was elected. Instead, we've seen too much evidence that waste and fat persists in county government.

Stroger's first big test to show he was serious about change came in February, when the board passed the 2007 budget. Stroger turned back an effort by reform-minded commissioners who wanted to cut more middle-management jobs. Instead, the ax fell more heavily on front-line county workers. The proof is in the numbers reported by the Sun-Times earlier this month: The county work force was cut to 24,815 from 26,731 between December and July, but the number of people making $60,000 or more increased to 7,672 from 6,497.

There have also been too many instances of Stroger hiring and promoting friends and relatives, or giving contracts to clout-heavy companies. Stroger has said that if all his appointments were reversed, it would hardly save enough money to fix the county's budget problems. He's right, but that's not the point. Every questionable hire erodes our faith in his stated commitment to end business as usual.

We realize the county budget is in terrible shape, and that much of the problem stems from soaring health-care costs and other pressures that are beyond the board's power to control. But a two-cent increase in the 3/4 of a cent county sales tax would be terrible for Cook County businesses, especially those close to the border with counties with lower taxes.

Before commissioners take such a drastic step, and ask taxpayers to fork over more money, they have to convince us that the government is functioning as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Put bluntly, we're not convinced.

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