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Stroger defends tax hike to hostile audience in Palatine

Monday, June 16, 2008
Daily Herald
by Kimberly Pohl

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger faced the firing squad Monday in Palatine.

About 250 residents, business leaders and politicians eager to vent their frustrations with what many perceive to be bloated and crooked county government lined up at Harper College to take aim at the president, who made a rare suburban appearance.

"I don't trust you guys, and that's a major problem as a person who invests money in the county and pays people's salaries," said Jeff Milstein, a Schaumburg business owner. "I feel completely disenfranchised."

The local business community is up in arms at the prospect of losing even more shoppers to Lake County after the board's recent 1 percentage point sales tax hike. Effective July 1, suburbs like Palatine will boast one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation at 10 percent, three percentage points more than their neighbors to the north.

Stroger didn't mince words, saying border communities stand to get disproportionately hurt.

But he defended the board's move, saying it had been 15 years since the county raised its portion of the sales tax. He said he balanced the budget despite inheriting a half billion-dollar deficit when he took over as president in December 2006.

"(The county) is providing 2008 services with 1992 dollars," he said. "We did what we felt we had to do."

He also said the idea of a surplus is a myth, despite projections that the tax increase will bring in an additional $426 million in revenue to cover a $230 million deficit. Collective bargaining agreements with unions will add $110 million to the budget next year alone, he said.

"What seems like a ton of money today will not be the same in 2009," said Stroger. "We'll have something that will get us through the bumpy times."

His numbers didn't ease the sentiment that the suburbs don't benefit from county services.

"I feel Cook County represents the residents of Chicago," said Nancy Golelba of Inverness, sparking the packed auditorium's first applause of the evening.

But Stroger said the Northwest suburbs are home to a growing number of people living below the poverty line, a population that uses more county services.

"You can't look at yourself as just Palatine and the rest of the world is just invisible," said Stroger. "We pool our money together and are able to do certain services."

State Rep. Suzie Bassi and State Sen. Matt Murphy walked away encouraged their proposed bill that would make it easier for municipalities to secede from the county gained momentum after Stroger said he wouldn't oppose secession because it's a local issue.

"We send about $7 down to Cook County for every two we get back," said Murphy, a Palatine Republican. "We didn't love it (county government), but we took it. ... But with the increase we have a feeling we're starting to get gouged."

Stroger showed a brief video that laid out exactly what the county does do, including the Rolling Meadows courthouse and Vista health clinic in Palatine.

Palatine Mayor Rita Mullins said the event went well.

"Not all questions were answered to everyone's satisfaction, but this opened the door to a better working relationship with the county," she said.

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