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Budget gets cold reception
New taxes called `dead on arrival'

Thursday, January 06, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President John Stroger unveiled his proposed 2005 budget Wednesday, which contains three new taxes, and it now faces an uncertain future before skeptical commissioners.

The $3.05 billion budget includes new 2 percent taxes on hotels and restaurant meals, both of which hospitality industry officials say will cripple their business.

The budget now goes before the 17-member County Board where some commissioners were predicting Stroger lacked the votes to pass the hotel and restaurant taxes.

The spending plan also includes a $200-per-machine tax on amusement devices such as video poker, a proposal that was all but forgotten Wednesday with attention focused on the other taxes.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), one of the commissioners who blocked a pair of Stroger's tax proposals for the current budget, called the new taxes "dead on arrival."

"He's lucky if he's got seven votes," Suffredin said.

Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago), who pushed for the county's 82-cent cigarette tax increase last year, said he flat-out opposed the restaurant tax, saying it would hurt businesses and the working poor.

In his one-hour budget address, Stroger seemed to challenge commissioners to find areas in the budget to cut where he did not.

Stroger urged the commissioners to scrutinize the budgets of the separately elected county officials.

"Today, I have laid out my 2005 executive budget recommendation. And I remind you that it is just that," Stroger said. "I encourage each of you ... to ask the difficult questions during the hearing process, to offer amendments that are thoughtful and reasonable and to remember that there are citizens in this county that rely on us for some very basic needs."

Revenue figures released Wednesday revealed that the cigarette tax increase approved last year generated $60 million more in 2004 than had been projected.

Despite that windfall, Stroger said the county still needs the new taxes to bridge a $73 million shortfall for 2005.

The hotel tax would generate $20 million this year and $34 million in 2006, the first year it would be levied for 12 months, officials said. The restaurant tax is expected to generate $50 million this year and $90 million in 2006.

However, the property tax levy would remain unchanged for the sixth straight year, a point of pride for Stroger.

The budget removes 620 vacant positions, mostly in offices under Stroger, and partially funds another 1,232. About 200 fully funded vacant positions remain in the budget.

Those vacant positions, plus a fund balance of $136 million at the end of 2004, are expected to be targeted by commissioners as they attempt to close the funding gap.

Some commissioners also have said they will focus on employee compensation, including Cook County's continued use of automatic step pay raises on top of annual cost-of-living adjustments.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a tax watchdog, said the county should demand more of its employees and also implement other savings measures that Stroger himself has cited but not enacted.

"We strongly reject the premise that there isn't greater efficiency that couldn't be rung out of this $3 billion operation," Msall said.

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