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Promises kept
So long, sales tax hike. Now keep driving spending reform.

Thursday, October 25, 2012
Chicago Tribune

Two years into her term, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is headed toward a coup de maître in Cook County government: Her 2013 budget will kill off the last, lingering piece of the deeply unpopular 1 percentage-point sales tax increase enacted by the county in 2008.

Yes, pause here. You are used to politicians who litter the ground with broken promises. Preckwinkle, though, is keeping the most significant vow of her 2010 campaign. She is eliminating the tax hike imposed by her predecessor, Todd Stroger.

Preckwinkle has proposed a budget that spends $100 million less than the county spent two years ago.

She is revamping the county's health system, as we discuss in another editorial on this page.

She is reducing the number of youths who are housed at the county's juvenile detention facility.

She is increasing productivity at the county Highway Department.

She is beefing up resources for the county's inspector general.

She is paying the county's bills in more timely fashion.

She has cut county staffing by 1,500 jobs.

She has transitioned Oak Forest Hospital into a regional outpatient center.

She has been lobbying for pension reform in Springfield.

When she unveiled her 2013 budget last week, she made a point of emphasizing its "structural" changes. No one-time fixes. No windfall parking meter deals. No fuzzy math.

Preckwinkle is making extraordinary progress on the massive reclamation project known as Cook County government. She deserves tremendous credit for that.

Now here's where we get a little nervous: "The next tax we propose…"

Those words slipped out last week as she discussed the new taxes she is advocating to close a $268 million budget gap. Last year, she supported new taxes on cars and boats, alcohol and loose tobacco. This year, she wants gun owners to pay a firearms tax on weapons and bullets. She wants to tax gambling machines. She wants cigarette smokers to pay another $1 per pack. Most troubling: She wants a 1.25 percent tax on the purchase of big-ticket items outside the county, which would create an incentive for businesses to locate outside of Cook County.

This budget feels like she has decided the structural reform of county government has been completed. While the budget holds the line on the property tax levy, it replaces nearly half of the lost revenue from the sales tax rollback with new taxes.

Government doesn't shrink much under the plan. Preckwinkle wants to eliminate 462 jobs next year, but they're mostly positions that are vacant.

Meanwhile, the budget includes 8.5 percent pay raises for law enforcement workers and 6 percent raises for other workers, the result of arbitration agreements reached after a few years without raises.

Employees won't pay more toward their health insurance costs next year, leaving taxpayers to cover the cost. Cook County employees pay an average of $706 a year toward their health insurance coverage. It's a steal. In 2011, Cook County — taxpayers — paid almost $500 million for health and retirement benefits for active employees.

Madame President, keep the pressure on spending.

There are still plenty of good ideas in efficiency reports prepared by former County Board member (now congressman) Mike Quigley and the Civic Federation. Combine tax offices. Merge the clerk and recorder of deeds offices. Contract for services in unincorporated areas. County sheriff's police shouldn't be trying to cover these scattered patches; nearby suburbs should be paid to absorb those duties. Preckwinkle is working on the issues in the unincorporated areas, and that's a good thing.

Finally, there are the county's persistent problems with absenteeism. During a county budget hearing Tuesday, Finance Committee Chairman John Daley said employees who abuse sick time, don't show up for work and are chronically late remain "a countywide problem."

Facilities management director John D'Amico told the board that Service Employees International Union Local 73 fights him every step of the way as he tries to impose stricter absenteeism rules. Each of those grievances from the union costs taxpayers. And that's just one department.

We applaud Preckwinkle's considerable accomplishments. But she can't start a victory lap yet.



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