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Stroger Again Holds Off Vote on County Budget
Hospital Also Gets Reprieve

Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Lacking the votes to get his 2004 budget passed, Cook County Board President John Stroger has again pushed back a vote on it -- this time until at least January -- sending a signal Tuesday to commissioners that he was open to compromise.

A major sticking point has been Stroger's proposal to create a 4 percent lease tax on equipment rentals, which remains on the table although Finance Committee Chairman John Daley later told reporters that the idea, for now, appears to be "history."

Also Tuesday, commissioners voted to defer until Jan. 22 a decision on approving bids to demolish the old Cook County Hospital, which Stroger has strongly advocated.

As for the budget, Daley said he believes commissioners will support a sales tax increase and a hike in the excise tax on cigarettes, along with making some spending cuts, to get a budget approved.

"I think the president will sit down and see where some of those cuts could be," said Daley. Noting that other county elected officials will not be exempted, Daley added, "They all better realize their budgets could be cut substantially."

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a first-term Democrat from Evanston who has helped block Stroger's tax initiatives, said that with some modifications and shifting of funds, a budget could be passed that does not increase taxes, alter government services or lay off workers.

Stroger's announcement that Thursday's budget meeting was being canceled came shortly before he agreed to delay a decision on the hospital's demolition.

The board voted to give developers and preservationists one more month to come up with plans to save the building.

Stroger, for whom the new public hospital next door is named, said he wants the old building torn down to keep the county in compliance with agreements it made to get the new one built.

Suffredin is also a leader in the charge to preserve the old hospital. He said deferral of the budget and hospital votes "shows that the president doesn't have a majority of the board.

"Deferrals are an indication that those who have power have lost some of it," Suffredin said. "And I think that's positive for the future of Cook County because the legislative body is finally acting like a legislative body."

Also Tuesday, commissioners delayed a vote on a proposed 82-cent increase in the cigarette tax. Daley said he did not call for a vote late in the day because several commissioners were absent and they had asked him not to take a vote.

Daley said the cigarette tax increase would be considered during the budget process along with the other tax proposals.

Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, the chief supporter of the proposed cigarette tax increase, conceded that a majority of the board has not yet signed on.

"I'm hopeful that we can get the votes," Maldonado said. "With some time, we can get the ninth vote that we need. I'm working on that very hard."

Maldonado said revenue from the cigarette tax increase would replace the need for the new lease tax.

Stroger, when asked where he was willing to compromise on his budget, cited the proposed cigarette tax hike as a possible replacement for the lease tax.

"If we can work that in as part of the revenue package and reduce the reliance on some of the other taxes that we proposed, I'm not opposed to that," Stroger said after the meeting. "It would be a two-fold purpose type thing: generating money and also helping to prevent the usage of tobacco by teenagers and others."

Stroger said he stood by his budget but added, "I'm wise enough to know that in a body, a legislative body, there must be some room for some compromises."

He said he had not yet heard any ideas on where in the budget his opponents might be willing to compromise.

Asked if the lease tax was no longer under consideration, Stroger said: "Nothing is off the table until we have a meeting of minds amongst some of these distinguished Americans as to what they think we need to do."

Commissioner Peter Silvestri of Elmwood Park, a Republican, said compromise does not mean substituting one tax for another. He said the focus should be on lowering the budget's spending, not on increasing taxes.

"I think compromise means the spending plan has to be changed to be reduced," Silvestri said. "Until we modify our spending plan we shouldn't be considering any [new or increased] taxes."

Also Tuesday, Stroger informed the board that the city of Chicago has filed a complaint in Housing Court against the county over the condition of the old hospital, citing the deteriorating condition of the exterior.

Some commissioners questioned the timing of the complaint, which stemmed from an inspection in July. The complaint was filed Dec. 1 but the county wasn't served with it until Monday afternoon.

Commissioners agreed to appropriate up to $1 million for a facade examination and immediate repairs, if needed, until a decision is made next month on the building's fate.

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