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Preckwinkle: Cook Co. to foster business growth

Monday, January 09, 2012
Daily Southtown
by Mike Nolan

Cook County government wants to be more of a player in regional economic development, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told Southland business leaders Monday.

But during a talk in Tinley Park, she told them they shouldn’t expect any significant relief on what’s viewed as one of the biggest hindrances to business growth in the county — the property tax classification system.

Speaking to members of the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce, Preckwinkle said she wants county government to be a leader in promoting regional growth and to make Cook County “more attractive to private-sector businesses.” She said the county has not been viewed as much of a force in efforts to attract businesses and jobs to the region.

“Right now, our region has the opportunity to become as competitive as any other region in the world,” she told the group.

Preckwinkle said the county is also stepping up efforts to provide job training to unemployed and underemployed residents and matching “people who are looking for work to companies (throughout the county) that are looking for workers.”

With many parts of Cook County experiencing double-digit jobless levels, “expanding the reach of our workforce services is critical,” she said.

Helping make the county more business-friendly, Preckwinkle said, is the rollback of a controversial penny-on-the-dollar increase in the county’s sales tax rate. The increase, first enacted in 2008, was cut in half in 2010, then trimmed a further quarter-cent this month. The remaining quarter-cent will go away a year from now.

Preckwinkle called the tax increase a “real burden on working families and businesses in Cook County.”

But she said there’s no easy fix for a more significant financial burden for business owners — the county’s property tax system, in which commercial and industrial businesses pay far higher taxes than homeowners.

Cook is the state’s only county to have differing tax assessment levels for homes and businesses, which has been blamed for driving businesses to the collar counties.

Preckwinkle acknowledged that the system is a “real problem” and “something we are working on,” but that she doesn’t see Cook County ever adopting assessment levels used by neighboring counties.

“There is going to be a disparity, it’s a question of how much,” she said in response to a question about tax assessment levels.

The county has for years offered tax breaks to new and expanding businesses, giving them a temporary break by reducing their assessment levels. In exchange, companies have promised to create or retain a certain number of jobs.

In a meeting with the SouthtownStar’s editorial board last year, Preckwinkle said the county had not done well in following up to see whether businesses given tax breaks had actually created jobs.

During Tuesday’s speech, Preckwinkle touted the work of the county’s year-old bureau of economic development, which she said has aided 17 businesses that will create 1,600 jobs. Afterward, however, she couldn’t clearly explain what the county is doing now to ensure that businesses getting tax incentives live up to their job pledges, saying “we are trying to work with the (county) assessor on that.”

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