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Stroger's $888 million tax hikes

Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger wants to triple the sales tax and double the gas and parking taxes to pay for 1,130 new county jobs and cover rising costs.

The taxes are part of a $3.2 billion budget Stroger unveiled Wednesday, including a 2 percentage point hike in the sales tax that would bring Chicago to a combined rate of 11 percent—a proposal rejected by the County Board two weeks ago. Taken together, by 2009 the proposed tax increases would generate $888 million.

Stroger faces a tough board fight on all three tax hikes, and even he admitted he doesn't know whether he will have the support of commissioners to win passage. He said he was open to other tax options but insisted the county needs more revenue next year or it will be forced to cut services.

The county tax increase proposals come at a time when Mayor Richard Daley is looking to raise a number of taxes, including a sizable increase in the property tax, and state government is eyeing a sales tax hike to pay for mass transit. A county commissioner earlier this week called it a "perfect storm of taxation."

Despite the wave of unpopular tax proposals, Stroger said he was not deterred, telling the Tribune editorial board, "I'll make the hard decisions."

Stroger also proposed Wednesday a 2.8 percent increase of the property tax levy to fund the Forest Preserve District, a hike that would cost the owner of a $200,000 house $1.17, officials said.

Because of necessary delays in implementing and collecting the sales, gasoline and parking taxes, those three levies would only generate $239 million in new revenue next year.

In future years, if the county does not need the $888 million those three taxes would raise annually, Stroger said the County Board would consider reducing or eliminating some taxes.

Stroger argued the new money is needed to cure a built-in imbalance between the county's revenues and its expenses. This so-called "structural deficit" is expected to only grow in future years unless the county raises new money or cuts expenses.

In his budget address, Stroger called the structural deficit "the elephant in the room."

Commissioner Timothy Schneider (R-Streamwood), an opponent of the tax proposals, said Stroger should be looking to streamline the government rather than grow it.

"The real elephant in the room is the waste and bloat and bureaucracy here in the county," Schneider said.

The budget calls for the addition of 1,130 new jobs, bringing the total county head count to 24,836. They're mostly for the health bureau, county jail and juvenile detention center, administration officials said. The proposal comes after the county cut 1,800 positions from this year's budget, but Stroger contended the new workers were needed mostly to comply with court mandates and the recommendations of outside experts.

Stroger pointed to a net elimination of 735 positions over the last three budgets as evidence that he is cutting waste and streamlining government.

The 72 new positions added in the budget of Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Stroger said, would be used mainly to digitize records in an effort to make that office more efficient.

In a written statement, Brown said Stroger cut 16 jobs from her budget that she had sought to retain.

"This is a bare-bones budget; any further decreases will have a crippling effect on court services," Brown said.

A spokesman for Assessor James Houlihan said 32 new jobs the department needs to implement the new, more complicated version of the 7 percent property tax cap legislation were eliminated from the budget.

As officials combed through the budget, numerous errors that the finance office said it would fix later only compounded the confusion. For example, one part of the budget shows Stroger recommending 1,660 jobs for the state's attorney's office while in another portion the figure is 1,586.

Administration officials said they were adding more than 600 jobs to the health services bureau but the budget shows an increase of only 420 jobs. When asked about the discrepancy, the budget department presented a breakdown of new positions that showed yet another figure.

But the bottom line is Stroger said he needs more tax revenue to fill a budget gap and even his biggest backers say he may not have the support, at least for this mix of taxes.

Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), a Stroger ally, said now that the proposals have been made he's looking to see "if there's any compromise on any of it, or where it goes."

Daley predicted there will be "some form" of a sales tax increase but not necessarily the 2 percentage points, from 0.75 percent to 2.75 percent. Of the three taxes, "the hardest would be gasoline," Daley said, noting already high gas prices.

Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago), who is loyal to Stroger, said she couldn't support the gasoline tax hike, proposed to double from 6 cents a gallon to 12 cents.

"The price of gasoline is going to escalate in the summer," she said. "I would hate to put that burden on anybody, and you can't exempt some people . . . from paying it."

Sims said she could support the sales and parking taxes, although she would prefer to see a new, wide-reaching beverage tax that hits alcohol, soda pop and water, a proposal that hasn't been introduced.

Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago), seen as a swing vote in the upcoming budget debate, said he cannot support Stroger's sales or gasoline taxes. Maldonado said he would prefer a jet-fuel tax, which has not been proposed, or new utility taxes if senior citizens are exempted.

The parking tax proposed by Stroger would double the current rate structure, which assesses taxes ranging from 50 cents to $20 depending on the size of the bill and the amount of time parked. For example, the county tax on a monthly pass would double to $40 while the tax on a daily tab of $12 or more would double to $2.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), a Stroger critic, said Stroger needs to streamline the county operation before he seeks higher taxes.

"The problem is you've got families out there struggling from paycheck to paycheck, trying to make ends meet and now these massive tax increases on everything from gasoline to everything you buy in a store . . . and it's all just to protect a bloated patronage empire. And I think we have to see reform first."

Stroger said it's time his critics on the board presented their ideas for how they would cut the budget if they don't want to raise taxes. He said they go easy on the spending of the other elected county officials, like the state's attorney, but then blast him when he proposes higher taxes.

"We put something together, and what do they say? They say it's wasteful. When I ask for something concrete, I get nothing out of them," Stroger said. "It's hard when the only thing you get from a certain group of commissioners is, 'No, no, no.' "

Stroger's health chief, Dr. Robert Simon, called out Claypool and Commissioners Mike Quigley and Tony Peraica, saying he wants to debate them to prove he's running a lean operation.

"Newspapers like battles, allow me to do battle," Simon said. "Show me what you would cut that is waste."

Quigley said he would welcome it.

"Anybody who wants to get into an argument about finding waste in Cook County, God bless him. That's an easy fight," Quigley said.

As for the Forest Preserve District, which is a separate government run by the same board, the property tax level would grow by 2.8 percent to $87.6 million to help fund a total budget of $153 million, a figure that includes the operations of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo.



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