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Cook County commissioners give initial sign-off on tax hikes

Friday, November 02, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County commissioners on Friday endorsed a $41.7 million set of new and increased taxes that would hit the pocketbooks of smokers, some businesses, gun buyers, and the owners of gambling machines at casinos and bars.

In a series of votes, the Finance Committee recommended passage of the new taxes proposed by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as part of her $2.95 billion 2013 budget plan.

A majority of the 17 commissioners voted in favor of each tax, but they don’t become final until the board meets next Friday to approve the entire budget.

“These proposals are modest, responsible and aligned with the priorities of my administration,” Preckwinkle said after the vote. “For me, this is not about political rhetoric or counting votes. This was about solutions that work best for the residents of Cook County.”

Also part of the budget is an $86 million tax reduction, the result of Preckwinkle eliminating the last quarter-cent of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase enacted under her predecessor.

Commissioners backed the new taxes despite questions about several of them, including the $1-per-pack increase in cigarette tax and a 1.25 percent tax on out-of-county purchases of items worth more than $3,500.

When the county last hiked the cigarette tax by $1 per pack in 2006, collections initially shot up by $46.5 million, county records show. But three years later, in 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.

Mike Konjevic, owner of a Marathon gas station in suburban McCook, said the 2006 tax hike hurt sales of cigarettes and other items as people drove three miles past his station to buy smokes in DuPage County.

“We would probably lose half our remaining business,” he said. “In three years, I haven't sold one carton of cigarettes. It's always just one or two packs at a time.”

Preckwinkle said the county’s projection of collecting $25.6 million more in 2013 through another $1-per-pack increase accounts for the number of smokers who would either quit or travel out of county to buy cigarettes. She also said it will deter young people from taking up the health-harming habit.

The 1.25 percent “buy-local tax” on out-of-county purchases, expected to bring in $13.8 million, is on shaky legal ground, according to a Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois analysis. Preckwinkle disagreed.

Another measure endorsed Friday would assess a $25 tax on every gun purchased within county borders.

The $600,000 it would raise would help offset the costs of treating gunshot victims at Stroger Hospital, which is run by the county’s public health system, Preckwinkle said. Commissioners also met as a full board to approve setting aside $2 million for programs to combat gun violence.

Also endorsed was an annual gambling machine tax — $1,000 per slot and $200 per video poker terminal — expected to bring in $1.2 million.


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