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'I don't trust you guys'
Angry taxpayers give Stroger earful

Monday, June 16, 2008
Chicago Tribune

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger finally kept his date Monday with taxpayers in the northwest suburbs, where some officials had threatened to secede from the county in anger over a sales tax increase he championed.

Stroger and his staff were met with a combination of laughs and groans as they stood before about 200 northwest suburban politicians and residents to defend the $426 million tax hike.

Many in the audience listened politely, but they were there to show their anger.

"We are now starting to feel that we are now starting to get gouged," said state Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), who introduced legislation that would make it easier for Palatine to secede from the county. "Do you really understand the competitive disadvantage you're putting the northwest suburbs to?"

The secession movement in Palatine was a long shot at best, but it illustrated a belief by some suburbanites that Stroger wasn't serving them and didn't understand the economic harm a sales tax creates in border towns where shoppers can cross into another county for lower rates.

At Monday's meeting at Harper College, the crowd applauded when Nancy Golemba, 48, of Inverness, said, "I think Cook County represents the residents of Chicago."

"I feel totally disenfranchised," said Jeff Milstein, a jewelry store owner from Schaumburg. "I don't trust you guys."

Stroger, who remained unflappable, said "people don't trust politicians . . . and that's they way this job works."

He also said people near a county or state line sometimes get pinched by a sales tax increase.

"To be honest with you, that's part of being in a large government," he said. "There are going to be areas that are harder hit than others."

In addition to worries that shoppers will look elsewhere, leaders in Palatine have questioned the value of what they get for being in Cook County. They note they have their own police, animal control and health departments, and that they plow most of their own roads. Stroger Hospital, they say, is used mostly by Chicago residents.

At the gathering, the crowd was shown a video outlining county services.

In comments before Monday's meeting, Stroger said the County Board was forced to respond to rising costs.

"The thing I hope to accomplish is to let people know what their county dollars do for them," Stroger said. "I don't think most people—anywhere, in the south, or north, or anywhere—really knows where their county dollars are spent."

Stroger, who backed out of an earlier meeting with northwest suburban officials and residents on the tax hike, said more than half of the $3 billion county budget goes to fund public safety, including the sheriff's department, state's attorney and courts. The next largest expense, he said, is the public-health system, including four hospitals and several clinics. "If those disappeared, there would be a tremendous impact," he said. "I think all the hospitals in the region would feel it."

Dr. Robert Simon, former interim chief of the massive county Health Services Bureau, defended the county.

"I think it's absolutely stunning to see what is done with $3 billion," he said. "It's absolutely amazing to me."

His argument was met with laughter from the crowd.

Stroger was the primary mover behind the County Board's February vote to more than double the county sales tax—to 1.75 percent from 0.75 percent. The tax provided him with the funding to hire more than 1,000 new employees and close the county's projected $234 million deficit.

The new tax increase begins in July and confers the dubious distinction on Chicago of having the highest sales tax, 10.25 percent, of any major U.S. city. It will add about $426 million annually to the county's coffers.

Stroger on Monday told residents he was trying to create a cash reserve, as a hedge against future tax hikes. Critics have said he wanted the tax increase to meet his needs through 2010, when he is expected to run for re-election.

Talk of secession and the creation of a new "Lincoln County" were popular among some northwest suburban communities in the 1970s. But it was the tax hike approved in February that spurred the new talk of rebellion.

The proposal to examine secession never led to action, but a few Palatine officials and a few residents continue to call it a possibility.

"I thought we should have been out years ago," said financial planner Linda Bertram, 55, before Monday's meeting started.

Bertram, a lifelong village resident, said that if people go elsewhere to buy things to avoid Cook County's sales tax, her real estate taxes could increase.

"If everyone is reducing their consumption of products and services in Palatine and taking it elsewhere, revenue is going to go down and real estate taxes are going to go up," she said.

Bertram feels like she and her neighbors are little more than blips on the County Board's radar.

"I know we have representation," she said. "But it feels like the Cook County Board is focused on Chicago and Chicago's needs."

For townships to pull out of a county now, residents from across the county must approve the move in a referendum. Under Murphy's legislation, just a majority of residents in the townships that want to leave would have to say so.

"We're the goose that lays the golden egg," Murphy said, referring to the wealthier northwest suburbs. "They don't want us to leave."

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