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Stroger budget sparks furor
Business groups quickly attack proposals

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County Board President John Stroger Wednesday unveiled a delayed—and immediately controversial—$3.05 billion proposed 2005 county budget that features higher taxes on hotels, restaurant meals and video games.
Declaring that he had no choice if the county is to meet its obligations to law enforcement and County Hospital patients, Mr. Stroger called for $78 million in new or increased taxes.

Included are a 2% rise in county taxes on hotel and motel rooms that will bring in an estimated $20 million a year, a 2% levy on “prepared” food and beverages projected to raise $50 million in 2005, and a license fee of $200 on every automatic amusement device in the county, to net $5 million.
The county’s property tax levy would remain frozen at $720 million for the sixth year in a row, under the proposal.

Mr. Stroger stressed that, except for court-mandated additions to staff at the County Jail, he is not adding jobs elsewhere in county government and, in fact, is holding spending $179 million below what his department heads and independent county officials wanted.

“Cutting any deeper would mean service reductions and layoffs, neither of which I can support at a time when more and more people are relying on us for their basic needs,” he said. “The budget will not compromise service, public health or public safety.”

But a wide range of business groups were quick to deride those comments.

“We urge rejection of this budget,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a watchdog group. “The county has failed to make the case that it is spending existing resources as efficiently and prudently as possible.”

Instead of raising the local hotel tax to the highest rate in the country and restaurant tax to among the highest, Mr. Stroger ought to cut more vacant job positions, privatize costly programs and take similar steps, Mr. Msall said.

The budget “is unacceptable,” said Gerald Roper, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Proposing to boost spending $124 million a year, as Mr. Stroger did, “is not controlling government,” Mr. Roper continued. “When are our elected officials going to realize they are chasing visitors, business and jobs out of our region?”

The hotel/motel hike would follow on another increase recently adopted by the City Council.

The budget also is expected to face strong opposition from many and perhaps most members of the County Board. Last year, a narrow board majority killed two tax hikes Mr. Stroger proposed, and instead sharply boosted the tax on cigarettes.

Mr. Stroger passed at least part of blame for new spending on Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who is independently elected.

Though the courts have ordered the hiring of more jail guards, Mr. Sheahan could cut spending by reducing a 10% daily absentee rate among corrections officers, and eliminate desirable but currently unaffordable items, like the county’s boot camp for young offenders, Mr. Stroger said.

Mr. Sheehan’s office had no immediate response.

The budget in most years is presented by the end of November, but was delayed this time to give Mr. Stroger’s finance team more time to look for fiscal solutions.

Meanwhile, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas said separately Wednesday she will cut her office's fiscal 2005 budget by another 2% and called on other county offices to do the same.

"If all Cook County offices cut their budgets, we could avoid any tax increases," she said.

Ms. Pappas submitted a budget request of $11.9 million to the Cook County Board, and said she would cut that by 2%.

"The hotel and restaurant industries must stay competitive with other cities," she said, in a statement. "President Stroger and the board commissioners need the cooperation of elected officials and department heads to do their jobs efficiently."



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