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Tax turnabout

Monday, November 30, 2009
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

After all the recent squabbling about whether Cook County does or does not need President Todd Stroger's full penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike, you might think officials would pause before further cutting the county's income.

Times are tough, don'tcha know? Just about every government on the planet is scrounging for cash, and most are examining and re-examining proposals to spend money on special-purpose projects.

But this is Cook County; which leads to the story of how a south suburban hospital that recently was taken over by a for-profit investment group is seeking a special property tax break, a break that would cut its bill a nifty 60%, saving the investors $1 million a year or more.

At issue is a request by operators of MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island, which took over the failing St. Francis Hospital & Health Center about a year-and-a-half ago from a religious group that threatened to shut it. Specifically, MetroSouth wants the county board to approve an ordinance that would apply to it and perhaps one other facility, the North Side's Weiss Memorial Hospital. The ordinance would tax the facility at 10% of its market value, rather than the usual 25%, saving owners a bundle.

MetroSouth has hired a couple of the best gunslingers in town — attorney Chuck Bernardini, a former county board member, and media consultant Guy Chipparoni — and they present what on its face is a decent case.

Mr. Bernardini says that when the private group took over St. Francis, it told local officials that it would need "some government help" to be viable over the long term and received promises of support from Blue Island and other officials. He points out that the 1,300-employee facility recently had to lay off 100 workers, and, even with the proposed tax cut, still would be paying $900,000 to $1.8 million a year in property taxes — something that St. Francis, a tax-exempt non-profit facility, did not have to do.

MetroSouth CEO Eugene Beckmann makes similar points.

The facility's New York-based owners have invested $10 million in upgrades in an area of the county that is starved for jobs and investment capital, he says, and would like to do more. But "we need a little help," he argues. "Right now, the reality in this community is that there are other hospitals which pay no taxes. We will pay taxes. The only question is how much."

Fair enough. But it's worth noting that the two commissioners who are sponsoring the tax-break plan, Deborah Sims and Joan Patricia Murphy, were among Mr. Stroger's staunchest allies in backing his argument that the county needs every bit of income it can get from the sales tax and can't afford to make any reduction, even if that tax clobbered a lot of small stores. But now that an institution located in their part of the world needs some money, the commissioners suddenly are less interested in maximizing the county's take.

It's also worth noting that special-purpose laws, which help one individual or company, usually make for bad public policy — particularly when well-connected insiders have been hired to secure passage of such a law.

The county board at the moment appears pretty divided on this proposal.

Suburban Republican Tony Peraica says he'll back the proposal in what for him is "a close call." City Democrat Bridget Gainer says she's not swayed and wants time to study the issue. A third member in a key position, Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, says the matter won't be on the agenda for his Dec. 1 meeting because it needs more review.

That is the way it should be. One suggestion to Chairman Daley: Since MetroSouth is kind of pleading poverty (Dr. Beckmann says the facility now is about breaking even), let them bring in their books and tax returns and prove the case.

Saving a good hospital for south Cook County is a worthy goal. So is making sure that county taxpayers don't get a traditional Chicago fleecing in the process.

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