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Property tax hikes out, but county has other ideas

Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
by SHAMUS TOOMEY

Cook County Board President John Stroger's tardy 2005 budget won't include a property tax hike, but that's the only proposed tax hike now being excluded from consideration, his office said Tuesday.

The more than $3 billion budget, to be released next Wednesday, will also include $18 million for 283 new jail guards -- a flip-flop for Stroger that comes days after a federal judge set a contempt of court hearing to deal with jail understaffing and how the county is addressing it.

The spending plan is for the fiscal year that began Dec. 1. It has been delayed as Stroger ponders ways to close what he claimed last month was a $146 million shortfall. The deficit now stands at $73 million after 512 vacant jobs were cut and 951 other vacant jobs were only partially funded.

To fill the gap, Stroger is looking at some combination of hikes in the county's sales tax, use tax, coin-operated amusement tax, hotel-motel tax, cigarette tax and amusement tax, spokeswoman Caryn Stancik said.

Everything else in play

How big those hikes might be was not revealed when Stroger's deputies briefed individual commissioners Tuesday. Stancik said a property tax hike is now off the table. The county has not raised that tax in seven years.

"Everything at this point is realistic . . . except for a property tax," she said.

Commissioners who have opposed Stroger vowed to fight any tax hike. They say more fat can be cut. "We have to look at reducing the payrolls," Commissioner Tony Peraica said. "We can reduce the pencil fund, but that's not going to help a $3.2 billion budget."

Last budget fight, Stroger proposed increasing the sales tax and adding a new lease tax before retreating. The county did hike cigarette taxes by 82 cents a pack. But with the city adding 32 cents a pack in taxes earlier this month, more smokers could buy their smokes outside the county and stymie a tax boost, commissioners warned.

Stroger's critics -- including Peraica and commissioners Mike Quigley, Forrest Claypool and Larry Suffredin -- proposed cutting all departments by 2 percent.

"We're bloated," Quigley said. "I can't ask the taxpayers to pony up yet again when we haven't shown any discipline at all."



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