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Higher Taxes Can't Be County's Only Option

Friday, December 19, 2003
Daily Southtown

A coalition of Republicans and maverick Democrats on the Cook County Board held firm this week, refusing to approve an alternative tax increase proposed by county board President John Stroger.

Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago) predicted, however, that Stroger's plan will prevail. The proposal includes a higher county sales tax and a hike of more than 450 percent in the tax on cigarettes.

Daley said he expected the higher taxes to be approved along with "substantial" budget cuts and possible layoffs.

The commissioners who have lined up against the Stroger budget so far have insisted that no tax increase is necessary for county government. They say enough can be cut from the almost $3 billion budget to avoid raising taxes and without making major service reductions.

But Stroger and his loyalists on the board seem to be committed to raising taxes first and considering spending cuts as a last resort.

Stroger's initial budget proposal called for creation of a 4 percent tax on leases and rentals to raise about $60 million. Business owners in the Southland objected vehemently, saying the new tax would drive their customers into nearby Will County or Indiana.

When the majority of commissioners rejected the lease tax, the Stroger administration went back to the drawing board and came up not with a smaller spending plan, but a whopping increase in the cigarette tax, from 18 cents to $1 a pack.

That proposal has a great deal of support, but not as a budget balancing tool. Instead, health groups have endorsed the tax as a means of reducing smoking, especially among teenagers and poor people.

That's a laudable goal, of course. Raising the price of a pack of cigarettes by almost a buck may cause some smokers to quit, but it will just motivate others to make the short drive to Indiana, where cigarettes already are almost $1.50 per pack cheaper.

But Stroger and his allies think the cigarette tax increase will boost revenues almost as much as the lease tax would have, so that's their Plan B. Their approach seems to be to keep proposing tax increases until they hit upon one they think they can push through. What they need to do instead is reduce their spending plan enough that they don't have to increase any taxes.

Cook County has a $3 billion budget and a work force that is generally considered top-heavy. We simply are not convinced that the only alternatives are to raise taxes or make massive layoffs and service cuts.

Take, for example, the continuing debate over the fate of the old county hospital building. All indications are that Stroger has decided he wants to demolish the building at a cost of millions of dollars. The county should be giving serious consideration instead to proposals from private developers to buy the structure, convert it to some productive use and get it on the tax rolls.

Maybe it's true that preserving the 89-year-old structure would prove to be unrealistic. But at a time when the county's budget problems are so significant that officials can't think of any alternative to higher taxes, it certainly makes sense to listen to thoughtful proposals about the hospital rather than rushing to spend millions to tear it down.

It's as if the big-spending philosophy was so deeply ingrained that county officials won't even think about any course of action unless it costs the taxpayers more money.

That has to change. In recent weeks, it has begun to appear that a majority of county commissioners understand that it has to change. We urge them to stick to their guns and, for once, find a way to spend less.

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