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Cook County budget passes; layoffs, tax hikes coming

Friday, November 18, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Almost 800 government workers will be laid off, and Chicago-area residents will need to dig a little deeper in their pockets as sin and luxury taxes rise under a 2012 budget package approved Friday by Cook County commissioners.

In a 16-1 vote, commissioners approved the $2.9 billion spending plan that largely followed Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s blueprint, with only a few exceptions.

It wasn’t the unanimous vote Preckwinkle got for this year’s budget — her first as county board president — but it was close: Commissioner William Beavers, a long-time political foe, was the only “no” vote.

Preckwinkle couldn’t coax the largest labor unions to go along with what she called a cost- and job-saving deal that would require them to take eight days off without pay, including six holidays.

“The proposal that was on the table was shutdown days and unpaid holidays and that didn’t resonate with the either the membership apparently or the union leadership,” Preckwinkle told reporters after the budget meeting.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the president opposed and commissioners voted down a plan to avert layoffs through a penny increase in the tobacco tax,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31.

He was referring to a multi-million-dollar proposal to boost the tobacco tax that died.

“Instead they are choosing to destroy hundreds of jobs at a time of record unemployment,” Lindall said, noting that 150 of AFSCME’s 5,000 workers are facing layoff.

Preckwinkle’s staff noted that the projected layoff of 1,000 dropped to 775 thanks to some across the board belt-tightening. Spared were 14 members of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s victim-witness program, whose proposed layoffs drew protests from the loved ones of crime victims.

While there was no countywide furlough deal most of the 23,000 county workers will be required to take a single day off without pay next year, the day after Thanksgiving.

A mix of layoffs, the elimination of hundreds of vacant jobs and $50 million in tax and fee hikes all helped erase a $315 million hole in the budget. The revenue increases included boosting taxes on booze and cigarettes and a new $4.75-per-day fee on the once-free parking garages at the suburban and city criminal courthouses.

After the Sun-Times reported that jurors would also be hit with the parking fee, commissioners won their push to exempt not only jurors but crime victims, witnesses and law enforcement called to trial. Those participating in early voting at the suburban courthouses will also not be subject to the fee.

The hike in the alcohol tax drew the biggest fight. Bars and distributors cried poor over a hike that adds up to just under two cents on a six-pack of beer, roughly two to three cents on a bottle of wine and 10 cents on a fifth of whisky or other hard liquor. The Preckwinkle administration says the burden on businesses will be eased because of the county’s sales tax dropping by a half cent in January.

In addition to booze, the county’s tobacco tax will include a new 5-cent tax on small cigars while larger stogies will be taxed at 25 cents. Loose and smokeless tobacco commonly known as “chew” will carry a new 30 cent per ounce tax, when the taxes kick in March 1. Big stogies will go up to 30 cents while loose and smokeless tobacco tax will double to 60 cents an ounce in 2013.

Beavers said he couldn’t support the budget, calling the sin taxes “poor people’s taxes.”

“These penny-ante taxes are hard on people,” he told reporters.

Veteran commissioners remarked that this was the first time in years the budget was approved before the Dec. 1 start of the fiscal year. State law allows budget negotiations to go in to February.

“This is the first time we’ve passed a budget during normal hours,” Commissioner Robert Steele, a Democrat, said, referring to 2011 budget negotiations that lasted until 4:30 a.m. “That’s a celebration everybody.”

Southwest suburban Commissioner Liz Gorman, a Republican said “there are items in this budget that I disagree with ... but there’s a bigger picture here.”

“We crafted a budget that has some foresight, that has some consolidations, that has some reforms,” she said.

That includes a plan to consolidate IT services — such as computer help desks scattered under a number of different county elected offices — at a cost of $100 million a year. Commissioner Tim Schneider said that’s a huge pricetag taxpayers must pick up, when you consider the state’s IT bill is $300 million annually.

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