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Stroger proposes to roll three years of taxes into one

Thursday, October 18, 2007
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead | Daily Herald Staff

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger doesn't want to bother you next year with yet another request to raise your taxes. Or the year after that.
After all, there's only going to be another structural budget deficit in those years -- just like there's one this year.
So why not just make the tax increase really big this year -- say a 266 percent increase in the sales tax -- and then we'll be set for several years? So reasoned the president in his 2007 budget address and news conference Wednesday.
"Are we going to try to fill our hole with one-time fixes, come back next year and fight and argue again, or are we going to try to look for something that will carry us down the road?" Stroger said. "I think that is the argument that has to be made. … We don't want to have to come back and ask people for money every year."
Practically speaking, here's the math: The proposed increase in the sales tax from 0.75 percent to 2.75 percent would raise anywhere from $882 million to $1 billion -- depending on who's estimating -- in additional revenue per year. But because Stroger couldn't muster the votes for the tax by the state's Oct. 1 deadline, the tax, if passed, would be collected for only the last two months of 2008, netting the county just $147 million this year.
Stroger's proposed increase in the gas tax to 12 cents per gallon from the current 6 cents would bring in an additional $72.2 million while an increase in the parking tax would net $22.8 million more each year -- for a total of $242 million more in 2008, enough to cover the projected deficit of $239 million.
But in 2009, the sales tax would be in effect for the entire year, netting the county a full $882 million by the county's own estimate. Add in the gas and parking tax and that's $977 million more in revenue than in 2007 -- an approximately one-third increase in the size of county government's current $3 billion budget.
That's not excessive, Stroger and county CFO Donna Dunnings -- Stroger's cousin -- argued, because next year there will be another "structural budget deficit." That re-occurring deficit, which Stroger called "the elephant in the room," will grow because salaries and costs go up every year.
Cook County government has "once again embarked upon a feeding frenzy," said Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican.
"The elephant in the room isn't the structural deficit. It's the waste and patronage and inefficiency of Cook County."
Even Commissioner John Daley, a typical ally of Stroger, seemed to concede between the lines that all of the taxes won't pass. Instead, he predicted a "compromise" between the Stroger camp and anti-tax commissioners.
Among other things, the new proposed taxes would pay to restore 1,130 jobs. Last year, Stroger cut 1,800 jobs to avoid a tax increase.
Among the new jobs would be 207 new employees in Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown's office. They would be used to move the office to an electronic filing system already present in many other courthouses. Other jurisdictions have implemented the changes with few new employees or by outsourcing the project.
Brown, whose office Stroger said will take 10 years to complete the transition, did not return phone calls, but issued a news release inexplicably saying she would be losing 16 positions. The county's budget director, Jarese Wilson, however, said the 207 figure was correct.
Schneider, a businessman who owns a golf course, noted information technology in the private sector is typically used to save money by decreasing staff, not to increase expenditures.
"Where's the savings?" he griped.
The other places the budget increase would be spent include the Cook County sheriff's office to provide it with 273 new employees, many of them required by a court decree to staff the jail.
Both the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and the county's Bureau of Health would receive more funding -- $14.1 million and $707.1 million respectively.
The detention center is being transferred from Stroger's control to the county's chief judge after children's advocates sued, alleging patronage employees were abusing residents and siphoning off resources that were supposed to be going to children.
The Bureau of Health is still under Stroger's control, but is the subject of intense lobbying to be turned over to an independent board as well. Again, complaints of patronage draining resources from those the facility serves have prompted the movement.
Robert Simon, the chief of the health bureau, has embarked on a reorganization effort of the bureau in the past year and said he has the agency down to a ratio of one supervisor for every six employees -- a manager-to-employee ratio that is more efficient than most in the health care industry.
Because of budget cuts of approximately $800 million last year, several clinics were forced to close. Simon said he's done what commissioners asked -- cut the fat. Now, it's time to make sure the bureau can continue to provide essential preventive medicine like mammograms and colonoscopies, which are in a backlogged status, he said.
"I want to challenge (Commissioners Tony) Peraica, (Mike) Quigley, (Forrest) Claypool," said Simon, referring to three anti-tax commissioners. "Here's my challenge to them. Show me what you would cut and then, after you show it to me, allow me to respond. I will debate any of those three individuals to show me what they would cut beyond what we've already cut and yet preserve health care."
Stroger and Dunnings similarly argued that the significant cuts last year demonstrate the county has gotten away from patronage hiring and inefficiency.
Just a few moments after that pronouncement, however, Cook County leaders conceded two of the three budget books they passed out Wednesday were inaccurate and riddled with errors.
What you'd pay
Here's a sample of what Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's new taxes would cost you if they're enacted.
Cost to you in county taxes Type of purchase 2007 2008*
$20,000 car $150 $550
Downtown parking $1.00 $2.00
20 gallons of gas $1.20 $2.40
*Amounts account only for county taxes and do not include any municipal or state taxes. Car purchase represents increase in sales tax from 0.75 percent to 2.75 percent. Parking purchase represents increase from $1 to $2 on lots charging $12 or more in base price. Gas purchase represents increase from $.06/gallon to $.12/gallon.
Source: Cook County 2008 budget


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