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Stroger, county commissioners close to budget deal
Facing deadline, Stroger and board deal on the budget

Saturday, March 01, 2008
Special to
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and commissioners moved closer to a compromise late Friday that would more than double the county sales tax and double the county parking tax, just hours before the deadline to pass a new budget, several commissioners said.

The potential end to a five-month stalemate was based on a tentative understanding between Stroger and Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-
Evanston), who would provide the crucial ninth vote to get the tax increases approved. In return, Stroger would agree to turn over control of county health services to an independent oversight panel for three years.

"I think something positive will happen today," Stroger said Friday evening, without commenting on specifics.

Details on the hospital oversight plan still were being hashed out in closed-door meetings, however, and without an agreement, the board had not come back into session to vote.

Under the tentative budget, the county portion of the sales tax would increase from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent in November. As a result, someone buying $100 worth of merchandise would pay an extra dollar in sales tax.

If the increase wins approval, Chicago's overall sales tax would stand at 10.25 percent, the highest of any major U.S. city. In suburban Cook, the sales tax would be a minimum of 9 percent. By comparison, the rates in New York and Los Angeles are below 8.5 percent.

The county tax on monthly parking in public garages also would double to $40 per month.

The sales tax boost would generate an estimated $426 million annually for the county, and the parking tax could generate more than $30 million annually. Nothing near those amounts would be raised this year, so the board also would have to take out short-term loans to be paid back next year when revenues start rolling in.

Stroger long has been one vote shy of winning approval of his plan to increase the county sales tax to 2 percent and repeatedly has rejected calls to compromise.

Many commissioners and business groups warned the board not to boost the sales tax, saying it would drive business and jobs out of the city.

"The taxpayers of Cook County are going to be hit for another half-billion dollars in tax increases," said Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside). "Clearly, this is a sad day for the county taxpayers. They are going to be fleeced once more."

The potential for a budget breakthrough came after Stroger and two other elected countywide officials prepared to go to court Saturday to keep county government operating. The county would lose its authority to spend money after midnight without a new budget.

The lawsuit asked a judge to order commissioners to negotiate continuously, with reasonable breaks, until they break the logjam. Chief Judge Timothy Evans already had issued an order to keep the courts operating.

Almost five months ago, Stroger proposed a nearly $3.3 billion budget that included a 6.8 percent spending increase and hiring more than 1,100 new county employees. To pay for it, Stroger recommended increasing the county sales tax to 2.75 percent, as well as doubling the parking tax and the county's 6-cent per gallon gas tax.

In recent weeks, Stroger lowered his sales tax request to 2 percent but still could get only eight of 17 commissioners on board.

In often heated sessions, commissioners hashed out their positions all week but could not agree on enough cuts or tax increases to balance the budget, prompting one early Friday to question whether they were stuck in the movie "Groundhog Day."

As part of the framework, Stroger would agree to the place the Health Services Bureau -- decried by critics as an inefficient, bloated, patronage fiefdom -- under the control of directors for three years. The goal is eventually to establish permanent independent governance, though the County Board would continue to control the purse strings.

A nominating committee including many professional health organizations would name 12 candidates, with Stroger picking a nine-member board that will have to approved by commissioners. Later, leadership of the bureau would be transferred from Dr. Robert Simon, the Stroger family doctor who is the interim chief, to a new chief executive officer selected through a nationwide search.

All of those particulars were being negotiated late Friday.

As part of the tentative compromise, Stroger also agreed to cut his budget proposal by 4 percent in all areas except health care, commissioners said. Those cuts, combined with the new taxes, would close a projected deficit that stood at $234 million.

It also would give Stroger, who has been in office for 14 months and wants to seek a second term, much leeway in coming years. Come 2009, it's estimated the county would collect more than $450 million, a figure that could increase if the regional economy continues to grow.

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