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Preckwinkle wants to raise Cook County taxes on tobacco, beer, cars
New money and spending cuts are aimed at closing a $315 million shortfall in next year's budget

Monday, October 24, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Erika Slife

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinklewill ask commissioners to raise taxes on alcohol, tobacco products and cars and to lay off more than 1,000 workers under a budget blueprint she rolled out Monday.

Those living in unincorporated areas could pay more for police services, and people parking in county garages would have to pay for the privilege.

The combination of new money and spending cuts are aimed at closing a $315 million shortfall in next year's budget. Preckwinkle will formally present her budget to the County Board on Tuesday in the hopes of meeting a Nov. 30 deadline and avoiding a protracted struggle that in past years has lasted until late February.

Among the tax and fee hikes, Preckwinkle hopes to collect $12 million a year by taxing loose tobacco, rolling papers, snuff and other cigarette products that officials said have long escaped county taxes.

Taxes on wholesale alcohol sales would rise. Beer would go from 6 cents to 9 cents a gallon, and liquor with more than 20 percent alcohol by volume would increase from $2 to $2.50 a gallon. The new taxes, which typically get passed on to drinkers, could raise nearly $30 million. The county alcohol tax hasn't been raised since 1989, officials said.

The county use tax levied on the purchase of cars, boats and other titled property would go up a quarter percentage point to 1 percent, earning an estimated $14 million to pay for improvements to county roads, highways and bridges.

Parking at county courthouses, which has been free, would cost $4.75. New parking rates at Stroger Hospital are still being negotiated, the administration said.

"The tax increase part of this is $25 million out of a $2.94 billion budget," said Preckwinkle's chief of staff, Kurt Summers.

Preckwinkle also wants to wring out more than $200 million in cost savings. She would shed approximately 1,600 jobs, including the elimination of 543 vacant positions. Among the layoffs are 282 from Preckwinkle's office, including 180 custodial positions due to "managed competition" that she hopes could save $2.5 million. Other job cuts would be spread out countywide, including the health and hospital system, and the offices of the sheriff, state's attorney and chief judge, the administration said.

Preckwinkle is offering to save another 500 jobs if unions agree to six unpaid holidays next year, said Neil Khare, Preckwinkle's director of policy. Under Preckwinkle's plan, county workers also will take an unpaid "shutdown day" the Friday after Thanksgiving, when courts are already closed, Khare said. So far, the unions have rejected the deal.

The board president is seeking to reduce the jail population by 1,000 by using ankle monitors and other alternatives for defendants awaiting trial to save $5 million. Weekend bond court would be consolidated at the courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue to save $1.9 million.

Preckwinkle wants to reduce the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center population next year by 150 to save $1 million. The budget adds $800,000 so juvenile probation can hire alternative secure group homes for detention and rehabilitation.

"I'm strongly supportive," said Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, who has been working to reform the detention center and its school. "These are the hidden prices, where (first), we spend a lot of tax money, but second, we're not even doing it well. You spend all this tax money and you have these kids coming in and out."

Budgets for the county's chief public safety offices would be cut. The sheriff's office would lose about $8 million, the chief judge about $4 million and the state's attorney about $3 million. All three of those officeholders historically have pushed back hard at attempts to cut their budget. A spokeswoman for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said the chief prosecutor "is deeply concerned about how these ongoing cuts will affect the ability of this office to adequately prosecute crime and protect public safety."

Preckwinkle also is following through on a campaign promise to roll back part of the county's sales tax, with a quarter percentage point set to expire Jan. 1.

But Preckwinkle also wants an estimated 100,000 unincorporated residents to either pay a new tax for county services they receive, such as public safety, or be annexed to municipalities. That could be a tough sell.

Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, said: "I think that as the commissioners weigh in on items of particular importance to them, the final product will look somewhat different than what we've seen today."

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