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Stroger sets the table for new tax increas
Cigarette, hotel, sales all named as possibilities

Saturday, November 20, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County taxpayers will likely have to dig deeper into their wallets next year as county government struggles with a budget deficit that even additional spending cuts may not be able to close, board President John Stroger said Friday.

Stroger presented potential taxes that could be increased, including sales, hotel and cigarette taxes. But he said any increase in property taxes would come as a last resort.

It was the first time Stroger had cited any specific taxes that he is considering increasing for the 2005 budget, which has not yet been released.

Stroger said he and his finance team will continue to negotiate with all of the county's elected officials in an attempt to close a $146 million budget gap.

But Stroger made clear his doubt that cuts alone could close the deficit.

"Frankly, I don't think we can totally eliminate the $146 million," Stroger said. "I do think there may be some room for additional cuts."

Any proposed tax increases could set the stage for another budget showdown similar to last year when commissioners blocked a pair of Stroger's tax proposals.

The cigarette tax increase eventually passed by a 1-vote margin, breaking the impasse.

Stroger remains hesitant to touch the property tax even though the county has held its levy flat at $720.5 million five years in a row. In fact, the levy is only $1 million more than in 1996, the first budget prepared by Stroger as president.

About 10 percent of the typical property taxpayer's bill in the city of Chicago goes to fund Cook County government. That means, for example, that about $400 out of a $4,000 bill would be earmarked for the county. A 3 percent increase in the county's property tax levy would cost that theoretical taxpayer an extra $12 annually.

A major question that will affect the budget is staffing at the Cook County Jail. Sheriff Michael Sheahan has requested 200 more guards for next year.

Plaintiffs in a federal consent decree filed a motion Friday to hold the County Board in civil contempt in an effort to force the hiring of 750 more guards over the next three years, including 375 in 2005.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday.

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