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Cook County OKs budget with new cigarette, gun taxes but lower sales tax

Friday, November 09, 2012
Daily Herald
by Jake Griffin

Some last minute changes to next year’s $3 billion Cook County budget resulted in more spending freedom for board members and a new nurse for the county’s hospital system.

After a two-hour finance committee meeting to decide the fate of 19 proposed budget amendments, the board kept Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s budget plan largely intact, voting 16-1 in favor of it.

Only Chicago Democratic Commissioner William Beavers voted against the budget proposal, offering no reason during the vote.

The budget includes a $1-per-pack tax hike on cigarettes, a $25 tax on gun purchases, taxes on video gambling machines and a 1.25 percent tax on items like office equipment and building materials purchased by business owners outside the county limits.

The new taxes and some other new fees will amount to roughly $42 million in revenue in the next year, according to budget estimates.

The county budget also eliminates the final quarter percent of a 1 percent sales tax imposed by the county board under Todd Stroger’s leadership four years ago.

“This budget reduces the size of Cook County government,” Preckwinkle said. “It is $100 million less than the county spent two years ago, when I came into office. We achieved that by making structural changes that focus on the county’s long-term health. We’ve reduced our head count and taken vacant positions off the books. And this year’s budget does not rely on one-time fixes. We are rolling back the sales tax, a promise I made before taking office and one that I’m proud to have kept.”

Meanwhile, among the amendments is one giving the county’s hospital system $90,000 that was initially earmarked for the hiring of a lawyer to work for the county board.

Initially, the amendment called for the board to divide the $90,000 among themselves and use it toward office expenses, but Bartlett Republican Timothy Schneider suggested the money would be better spent to cover the costs of routine medical exams for county residents.

“If it was going to look like the commissioners were going to get more money, most were not going to support that,” Schneider said.

The original amendment was scrapped and a substituted version called for the money to be used to hire a nurse. That proposal passed 9-7.

That vote came a few minutes after the commissioners gave themselves unfettered access to nearly $140,000 in funds that were traditionally only used to cover costs of their office supplies. Now, the 17 commissioners will be able to use the office supply stipend of $8,200 apiece for a variety of other purposes, including travel and paying consultants. Commissioners will be required to fill out request forms for the cash explaining their expenditures.

The move comes weeks after the county’s inspector general released a report critical of the way commissioners were accounting for so-called “contingency funds.” That money is available for commissioners to use for a variety of expenses, including meals and other incidental costs. The report found nearly $100,000 spent over three years could not be accounted for.

McCook Democratic Commissioner Jeffrey Toboloski expressed concerns that the amendment created “a slush fund” for the board, but it was ultimately approved as well with many commissioners noting the written request requirement.

“Whatever they spend the $8,200 on has to be explained and will be available for the public to see,” Schneider said.



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