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Cook County to roll back sales-tax increase by 2013

Saturday, February 26, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle made good Friday on a campaign promise to roll back what’s left of a controversial penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax hike that had been pushed by her predecessor, Todd Stroger.

With the backing of a bipartisan majority of Cook County commissioners, Preckwinkle pushed through an ordinance that cements a gradual rollback of the remaining half-penny of the sales-tax increase by 2013.

The county’s 2008 penny-on-the-dollar hike pushed Chicago’s overall sales tax to 10.25 percent, the highest of any large city in the country. Last year’s half-penny rollback pushed it down to 9.75, tying with Los Angeles for the highest sales tax in the country.

Preckwinkle promised to roll back the increase during her campaign and again on her inauguration day in December.

On a 12-5 vote, the board set Jan. 1, 2012, to erase a quarter-penny of the tax and Jan. 1, 2013, to do away with the final quarter penny.

Together, the loss of the half-penny sales tax will cost the county about $180 million a year.

Republicans representing suburban districts — particularly those that neighbor counties with a lower sales-tax rate — lauded the rollback. “Congratulations!” said Commissioner Gregg Goslin, who represents the northwest suburbs.

Timothy Schneider, another northwest suburban Republican, also applauded the move.

“The people I represent have been disproportionately affected,” Schneider said, citing vacant strip malls where businesses have closed after consumers took their business elsewhere. “The periphery of the county has been disproportionately affected.”

Stroger championed the penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax hike back in 2008, boosting Chicago’s overall sales tax to the highest in the country.

The backlash over the increase helped Preckwinkle defeat Stroger’s re-election bid.

Joan Murphy, a Democrat representing the county’s southwest suburbs, said she thought the vote for the rollback — which comes at a time the county faces major money worries — was wrongly swayed by newspaper opinion pages that have opposed the sales-tax increase.

“I think it’s just sad that a couple of newspapers run this County Board,” Murphy said.

Democrat Deborah Sims, who also voted against the rollback, told Preckwinkle she wished she had waited until she learned more about the county’s financial troubles before promising the rollback: “It’s unfair you made a commitment before you took office.”

Preckwinkle had said before taking office in December that she knew the county faced a $487 million budget deficit and said cost-cutting could plug the gap.

“We made a commitment on the campaign trail this is what we were going to do, and I wanted to be sure all the people of Cook County understood that we were going to meet our campaign promise,” she said after Friday’s vote.

She lauded ally and Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat representing Chicago’s far North Side and nearby suburbs, for coming up with the plan for a gradual rollback.

“I appreciate their concerns, but I don’t share them,” Preckwinkle said of the opposition. “I think that we’re going to be able to restructure Cook County government and make efficiencies and look at innovative ideas that will enable us to operate more effectively and at less cost. So, over the long term, I think that’s what we’ve got to do anyway. And this is an extra added incentive.”

Commissioner Robert Steele, a Demcorat, voted against the rollback, saying he’s worried about the impact of having less money on the county-run hospitals and clinics.

“We’re just doing this a bit early,” Steele said.

Revenues from the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax was pegged at about $360 million. In the run-up to the February 2010 primary, commissioners were feeling the heat from constituents angry over the sales tax hike and voted to slash it by a half penny.

The head of the Civic Federation, a tax policy watchdog that criticized the sales-tax hike, praised Friday’s vote. Lawrence Msall, the group’s president, said of the increase: “It was established without any plan for how it was going to be used. The majority of it didn’t go to fund the health system, as many had promoted. It was used, in fact, ... to provide back pay and to provide back compensation.”

He said that while the loss of the half-penny might be “onerous” for county government, he believes short- and long-term reforms to cut costs will absorb the loss.

Commissioners voting for the repeal included: Jerry Butler, Bridget Gainer, John Daley, John Fritchey, Jesus Garcia, Liz Doody Gorman, Goslin, Edwin Reyes, Schneider, Peter N. Silvestri, Suffredin and Jeff Tobolski.

Voting against the measure were: William Beavers, Earlean Collins, Murphy, Sims and Steele.



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