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Stroger's county budget hit before it's released

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON

Cook County Board President John Stroger wants to slap a first-time tax on hotels and raise taxes at restaurants to pay for his $3 billion-plus 2005 budget -- a move some call "devastating" and "a hit to the working poor" and consumers.

County Commissioner Mike Quigley said the budget Stroger will unveil today soars beyond $3 billion because it was developed by a "tired leadership that has failed to" protect county taxpayers.

Hotel and restaurant lobbyists confirmed they have also heard a tax hike pitch is coming from Stroger, and said they will "be there with bells and whistles on" when he makes his annual budget address.

The hikes would come just weeks after Mayor Daley successfully pushed a list of tax increases to cover the city's 2005 budget, and property taxes were raised by city schools to cover their spending.

They also would come as Stroger is asking for a property tax increase to cover spending at the Forest Preserve District he runs.

Stroger was in Washington Tuesday, and his staff declined to respond to Quigley's revelations, though they were visibly surprised and apparently peeved by his move.

A new 2 percent county hotel tax would drive Chicago's overall hotel tax to 17.4 percent -- "almost double the 9 percent in Las Vegas," said Marc Gordon of the Illinois Hotel Motel Association.

"I can't come up with a better word than devastating," Gordon said of the impact he predicted it would have on tourism and conventions.

Critics say tax will hurt workers

An increase in the food and beverage tax, which is also expected, would be "terrible" for workers and customers, said Colleen McShane of the Illinois Restaurant Association. She said her members will be vocal about their opposition today, especially in light of other tax and fee hikes restaurants were hit with in recent months.

"What Stroger doesn't understand is, this is going to hit the working poor," said Jerry Roper of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. "The people working in hotels and restaurants, whose jobs are going to be cut because business will go down -- they'll be the ones hit the hardest by this."

Quigley says Stroger is choosing to protect a bloated budget filled with patronage jobs instead of protecting taxpayers, and he says anyone going out to eat or staying in a hotel will be affected, not just tourists.

McShane said if fewer people are going out, "a terrible domino effect" will hit industry workers.

Stroger's staff has insisted it has cut to the bone, whittling a $252 million budget deficit to $73 million in the last three months.

Quigley argues plenty more can be trimmed out, though Stroger is asking for a final budget vote on Feb. 17, giving commissioners just 43 days to find places to cut.



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