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Stroger vetoes the Cook Co. sales tax rollback

Monday, November 23, 2009
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger vetoed the halfpenny-on-the-dollar rollback of the county sales tax passed last week during a news conference Monday outside the Chicago hospital named for his father.

Cloaking himself metaphorically if not literally in the white lab coat of a doctor, Stroger said, "My veto is only about protecting this health-care system."

"Obviously, not too shocking, but I think he's being really presumptuous and overly optimistic," responded Orland Park Republican Commissioner Liz Gorman, who voted for the repeal and insists the high sales tax is prompting consumers to drive across the county line in her district, which runs along Cook's western fringe. "It's a politically motivated act where he's trying to incense his supporters."

Backed by union leaders, medical workers, Chicago clergy and community activists chanting, "We support the veto," Stroger threatened that the cut in the sales tax would likely lead to the closing of Provident and Oak Forest hospitals as well as clinics across the county's Health and Hospitals System and cause a deluge of patients at the John H. Stroger Hospital where he held the news conference.

"There is no gray area on this issue," Stroger said. "I refuse to stand idle while opposition commissioners decimate this system."

He targeted Democratic Chicago Commissioners Robert Steele, Earlean Collins and Edwin Reyes in trying to preserve his veto against an expected override at the regularly scheduled County Board meeting Dec. 1. The rollback passed last week by a 12-5 vote, with all three voting in favor. Only 11 votes are needed to override thanks to a new law passed by the General Assembly and signed this month by Gov. Quinn, so Stroger would need to peel away two.

Three previous attempts to roll back the 1 percentage point increase, or a portion of it, in the county sales tax imposed last year have failed to meet a higher four-fifths threshold for an override.

"It's really going to have to be the people who speak on this issue," Stroger said in urging voters to call the three targeted commissioners. "If they don't speak, with the next budget, I'm going to have to pull rabbits out of the hat."

Yet those speaking for a majority of the board said they expected the will of the people to tell as well - on their side. Glenview Republican Commissioner Gregg Goslin said he expected Steele, Collins and Reyes to hold fast. "I would think they would," Goslin said. "Frankly, I've been going through the roll call thinking, where's he going to get the votes? I can't find it."

"I don't see it," echoed Gorman. "It makes absolutely no sense that they would repeal their vote and slip on this issue."

"I'm not surprised the president vetoed it," added Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider, "but I'm confident their vote to originally repeal it will stand and that they'll stand pat and override the veto with the rest of us."

The board already accounted for the rollback in the county sales tax from 1.75 to 1.25 percent, which would take effect July 1, in the 2010 budget it passed last week. The cut in the sales tax would show up in the last two months of the fiscal year, so the board voted to cut the budget $32.5 million across the board.

Yet Stroger, who wore a lapel button reading, "Cut waste, not services," at the news conference, said the major problem would come the following year in 2011, when $200 million would have to be cut, on top of HHS losing $100 million in onetime federal funding.

"With that, there is no way the hospital system can remain open as it is Monday," Stroger said. "There's going to be devastation."

"It's really foolish to try to solve the problems with this health-care system by cuts," added Dr. David Goldberg, president of medical staff at Stroger Hospital.

Yet commissioners favoring the reduction in the sales tax said it was foolish to lose business and tax revenue with consumers crossing county lines for a lower sales tax in a tough economy. Schneider said he expected the board to "stand up for the taxpayers of Cook County rather than the politics within Cook County."

"I just think he's unrealistic," Goslin said of Stroger. "He's out of step with what's going on in the world Monday. Government everywhere is cutting back."

"Again, he is out of touch with what the voters in Cook County want him to do," said Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terrence O'Brien, who is running against Stroger in February's Democratic Primary for president of the County Board. He called the veto "arrogant and defiant," adding, "I would not be surprised if Stroger went so far as to challenge this whole thing in court, which surely will cost the taxpayers even more money they don't have."

The board will decide once and for all next Tuesday just which side it's on concerning the issue.

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