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Some Cook County commissioners skeptical on tax, fee hikes
Preckwinkle introduces her 2012 budget proposal

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Erika Slife

Some Cook County commissioners are balking at the tax and fee hikes board President Toni Preckwinkleis pushing in her proposed spending plan.

"There's going to be a boatload of fee increases in here," said Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, D-McCook, after Preckwinkle's budget address Tuesday. "It seems like they're trying to balance the budget on the backs of the taxpayers here."

Preckwinkle's $2.94 billion spending plan calls for new taxes on cigarette products, such as rolling papers; an increase on taxes for wholesale alcohol, cars, boats and other titled property; and a new $4.75 fee at county courthouse lots, where parking is now free.

The approximately $52 million in new and increased taxes and fees would help Preckwinkle close a $315 million shortfall next year. The amount is nearly equal to the $53 million the county expects to lose in sales taxes after cutting the rate by a quarter percentage point Jan. 1.

Whether there's enough opposition to derail any of the tax and fee hikes remains to be seen. The issue will play out over the next several weeks. Removing part of what Preckwinkle's asking for means a different tax hike or budget cut would have to make up the difference.

Suburban commissioners are especially concerned with Preckwinkle's idea to apply a new tax to unincorporated residents, which her budget team pegged at nearly 100,000 people. The administration wants to charge an average of $150 per household to help pay for the county services they use, such as public safety.

"Because the unincorporated people have been paying Cook County property taxes, they have been paying for their own police protection and they have been paying for the building department and other services," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston. "I do agree that Cook County is a terrible municipal authority, and for those people they don't get enough services."

Commissioner Timothy Schneider, R-Streamwood, said a new tax on unincorporated areas could become one of the more divisive issues during the budget debate.

"I don't want this budget to come as an argument between the city and the suburbs, and I think that's what we might be getting," Schneider said. "I think if you look at the whole picture, you see that the suburban areas pay a significant amount of tax money to the county."

Preckwinkle defended the tax and fee increases as being a small part of the overall budget. She said her spending plan calls for reducing the jail and juvenile detention center populations, which could save $6 million next year, and reducing the county's taxpayer subsidy to the independent health and hospital system by $24 million from last year's budget. She's forecasting more than 1,000 layoffs unless unions agree to unpaid holidays off next year.

"I'm very proud of the budget we put on the table today," Preckwinkle told reporters after her speech.

She said it is only fair for unincorporated residents to pay more for services, since most incorporated residents also pay for municipal police protection.

"There's no reason why 98 percent of the people in the county should pay for police services for the 2 percent of the people who live in unincorporated Cook County," she said.

Preckwinkle also noted that she's keeping her campaign promise to roll back another fourth of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax enacted under her predecessor, Todd Stroger. The final fourth of that unpopular tax increase is scheduled to go away in 2013.

"She is reforming Cook County government," said Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, D-Chicago, who is supportive of Preckwinkle's budget. "There was no reforming Cook County government with the sales tax. … She kept her commitment to the taxpayers."

Commissioner William Beavers, a Stroger ally, said he will not vote for the budget unless the sales tax is put back in.

"I don't see this budget going anywhere," said Beavers, D-Chicago. "Put the penny back, get rid of all these other taxes, and I'll vote for the budget."

Preckwinkle's budget team is aiming for the budget to be passed by Nov. 18. The budget year ends Nov. 30. Public hearings will be held the first week of November.

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