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Preckwinkle's pledge
New board president makes good on complete rollback of sales tax hike

Sunday, February 27, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Three years ago, county workers cheered and high-fived with Cook County Board members who had voted to raise the sales tax. The workers knew the big revenue cushion — $400 million a year — would ease pressure on board President Todd Stroger to cut overhead. Before the vote, one worker stepped to a microphone to cast a Caribbean curse on commissioners who opposed the increase. Board member Deborah Sims argued that the county payroll wasn't stuffed with expendable patronage hires: "There's not that many political hacks in Cook County!"

That tax hike doomed Stroger's presidency. Fellow Democrat Toni Preckwinkle beat him in the 2010 primary after airing a TV ad featuring a Ben Franklin impersonator in spectacles and a ruffled shirt. Preckwinkle told viewers that, "A penny saved is a penny earned. … I'll repeal the whole Stroger sales tax."

A board chastened by a public backlash against that tax hike — with its regressive impact on poor families and its miserable disadvantage for retailers near county borders — voted down half of the full percentage point even before Preckwinkle took office in December. On Friday, by a 12-5 tally, the board let Preckwinkle keep her pledge: Another quarter-point will disappear next Jan. 1, with the final quarter-point vanquished on Jan. 1. 2013.

We are thrilled with Preckwinkle's gutsy follow-through. During her first 100 days, she also has been fumigating this drowsy government to rid it of many Stroger cronies, and has ordered reviews of spending on everything from insider contracts to the needlessly large fleet of autos that taxpayers purchase for county employees.

The staggered death of the sales tax hike gives Preckwinkle time to cut spending to offset the revenue decline. The $3.05 billion budget for 2011 that commissioners approved early Saturday is a first step. Agreements by some unions to take 10 days off without pay will cut layoffs from a proposed 1,800 to 750 or fewer

The furlough solution in place of job reduction is unfair to talented and productive employees, particularly in offices such as Clerk David Orr's, which already had volunteered deep spending cuts. As one law enforcement official put it Sunday, "I bust my tail every day and now I have to take a pay cut so the dead weight can keep their jobs?"

Given Preckwinkle's short tenure, it's no surprise that some structural reforms got booted to the 2012 budget — a project she says she'll begin Tuesday. Results of a "desk audit" due within weeks should identify obsolete and redundant job slots. She also needs to push for two changes the board mistakenly rejected last week: The first, proposed by board member John Fritchey, would consolidate 400 technology employees who now work for 10 different county agencies — with little or no coordination. Streamlining tech operations should cut millions in redundancies and inefficiencies. The second, offered by Larry Suffredin, Earlean Collins and Bridget Gainer, would make budgeting more transparent by identifying who is laid off, at what savings, and with what impact on county services.

Preckwinkle credits Suffredin — he voted in 2008 to enact Stroger's tax hike in trade for Stroger letting an independent board run the county health system — with now helping to engineer the hike's demise. Good for him. Good for taxpayers. And good for the County Board president who has delivered on her pledge.

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