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Editorial: Budget readies county for coming storm

Friday, October 19, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

We’re in line to pay $1 more per cigarette pack in Cook County taxes next year, making Chicago’s total cigarette tax bite the biggest in the country outside of New York.


We may have to pay $25 more in taxes for a gun and an extra five cents for every bullet.

And businesses that buy something worth more than $2,500 outside Cook county, such as an office copying machine, soon may be required to pay an extra 1.25 percent in county sales tax — an idea that begs for a close and skeptical look before becoming law.

But all of this, along with continued spending cuts, does allow the county to pay its bills, without more general tax hikes, for one more year.

After that, watch out.

Under Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s plans for next year, property taxes won’t budge and sales taxes will go down. And county government will get a little more efficient, with fewer employees and lower costs in several areas.

Over the past three years, the county has reduced its operating budget by $100 million a year and has reduced the number of job positions by 2,000. Preckwinkle plans to keep that trend going, eliminating more than 400 more job positions next year.

Her proposed $3 billion budget for 2013 also puts the county in a stronger position to weather a looming pension-funding tsunami rolling toward both Chicago and the county.

City and county officials won’t really know where they stand until the State Legislature takes up pension reform, most likely at the beginning of January. But a trimmer county budget is like plywood nailed up over windows as the storm approaches.

“We’re trying to get our house in order to deal with the pension issue, which is the elephant in the room,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Tuesday.

As it stands, the county’s pensions are only 58 percent funded and will go bankrupt in 26 years. Changes in retirement age, the pension formula, cost-of-living increases and retiree health care all are on the table, along with a possible pension cap.

Meanwhile, the most unpopular Cook County decision in recent years — raising the sales tax by a penny on the dollar — will be only a memory after Dec. 31. That’s an $86 million savings for taxpayers next year, roughly double the total of the proposed new fees and taxes.

As for the new taxes, smokers won’t be happy with the higher levy, but the record shows higher taxes discourage young people from smoking. Asked if the higher taxes will encourage the sale of single cigarettes to young people, Preckwinkle said, “Better they should buy one cigarette in a school yard than a pack.”

The gun and ammunition taxes are likely to face fierce opposition from the gun lobby, but Preckwinkle fairly argues that many guns used in Chicago crimes are purchased legally in the suburbs and that it costs the county $52,000 to provide acute care for each gunshot victim it treats. Last year, 670 gunshot victims came through the county hospital’s emergency room doors.

We also like Preckwinkle’s continued efforts to reduce the number of people behind bars who are accused of nonviolent offenses. The daily population at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has dropped from about 300 to about 250 over the last year, but the adult population has gone up.

Next year, Preckwinkle wants to hire two more public defenders and an investigator to help bond court judges do a better job of deciding when to set a high bond. That can only help the cause of justice.

Preckwinkle, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has cobbled together a budget that works for now. But that pension tsunami is coming.



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