Cook County revenue officials are putting businesses across the region on notice: Pay your taxes or else.
An untold number of stores and other retail outlets that sell products the county taxes such as gas and cigarettes have failed to register with the county — and therefore aren’t paying their fair share, Cook County Revenue Director Zahra Ali said Thursday.
The county is also cracking down on businesses that are registered but have failed to pay their tax bills.
The county believes it is losing between $500,000 and $2.89 million a year because of the unregistered businesses.
The crackdown is part of an overall effort to capture $10 million a year in “delinquent revenue,” county officials say.
“It’s only fair to level the playing field [and make sure] that everyone’s remitting their taxes,” Ali said.
While her office is stepping up enforcement to get businesses on the tax rolls, Ali said the county is offering a break: Any business that voluntarily registers by Oct. 31 only has to pay back taxes for the past four years — rather than the standard seven. In addition, interest and penalties will be waived through the end of October.
Businesses that register after that will have to pay the interest, too.
But businesses that don’t register — and that get caught — will get hit with a triple whammy: taxes, interest and penalties.
The so-called home rule taxes generated an estimated $350 million this year for Cook County. The money pays for county courts, the hospitals and health clinics serving the poor and uninsured and other county operations.
The county charges taxes on a variety of goods and services, including on alcohol, amusement, gas, parking and new vehicle sales, and also charges a “use” tax on titled property such as used cars and trailers.
The county’s share of the gas tax, for example, is six cents a gallon, Ali said.
But some businesses don’t collect the tax.
Others collect it but never send it in.
“Citizens should be concerned because we are all paying it,” she said. “ . . . We want to make sure the gas distributor is charging [the tax] and that they’re collecting it and they’re remitting it to the county.”
To track down some unregistered businesses, the county is working with business associations and wholesalers to find cheaters.
Finding revenue sources has become increasingly crucial as county board President Toni Preckwinkle works to erase a $315 million deficit in her $3 billion spending plan for 2012.