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Cook commissioners, critics rock Stroger's balanced budget proposal
No provision for sales tax rollback

Friday, October 23, 2009
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger presented what he described as a balanced, $3 billion budget with no new taxes Thursday and asked county commissioners to "break from the past" and approve it before the 2010 fiscal year begins Dec. 1.

Yet the spending plan ran into immediate resistance from suburban Republicans, and others pointed to how it makes no allowances to roll back the county sales tax.

"Cook County can and will hold the line on new taxes," Stroger said. "Like last year, my budget recommendation for 2010 proposes no new taxes - none."

Critics, however, pointed to how last year the county more than doubled its sales tax, hiking it a full penny on the dollar to 1.75 percent, making any new taxes unnecessary.

"The county's flush with cash," said Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a Bartlett Republican. "Well, yeah, we're flush with cash, because we've robbed from the taxpayers with this egregious sales tax."

"The taxpayers of Cook County should be entitled to a rebate," said Riverside Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica, pledging, "The reduction of the Cook County sales tax will pass."

The sales tax paid in Cook County _ now at 10.25 percent in the city _ remains the biggest blockade to development and yet the budget gives no consideration to reducing it, said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government watchdog agency.

"This appears to be a status-quo budget that benefits from the sales tax," he said, despite a push by state lawmakers and county residents to reduce the tax.

Attempts to roll back the sales tax on the county board failed by a single vote to override Stroger's veto over the summer, leading the General Assembly to consider rival proposals to lower the requirement for an override on the board from four-fifths to a more customary three-fifths majority during its current veto session. One proposal would take effect immediately, another in 2011. Suburban Republican Commissioners Schneider, Peraica and Liz Gorman of Orland Park have already sponsored ordinances to roll back the sales tax a half or a full percent, but the earliest any rollback could take effect would be next July.

Jaye Morgan Williams, the county's chief financial officer, said the 2010 budget would only fall short two months if the immediate rollback passed. Yet it would force significant cuts in the 2011 budget and implementation at the end of 2010. She said a $400 million cut - the estimated cost of a 1 percent rollback - would be about a quarter of the alterable budget, given the county's mandated responsibilities.

Stroger said that would mean massive cuts to the hospitals budget, right off the bat.

He said his $3 billion overall budget proposal includes $2.3 billion in general spending, up $80 million or 3.6 percent, which Stroger attributed to "legal mandates in public safety, contractual commitments and public-health and public-safety initiatives." He also claimed it cut 714 positions countywide to bring county employment to just over 22,000.

Yet Health and Hospitals System officials recently said they were trimming 950 positions, including 335 announced Thursday. Stroger and Williams said they couldn't account for exactly how many of the 714 job cuts were in HHS, although they insisted the number of county jobs was declining.

"That figure seems a bit suspect to me," Peraica said.

In fact, a budget overview book delivered to the media cited a total budget of $3.6 billion, with 23,845 employees for the 2010 fiscal year.

Stroger put forth a schedule calling for departmental reviews and board debate leading toward a passage date of Nov. 19.



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