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County Gives Hospital Reprieve, Stalls Cigarette Tax Hike

Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times
by Abdon M. Pallasch

The old Cook County Hospital building got a one-month stay-of-execution Tuesday. A threatened cigarette tax hike also was delayed.

County Board President John Stroger accepted a one-month deferment of a vote on a demolition contract on the 89-year-old hospital building. Stroger realized he did not have the votes to approve the contract, said commissioners who favor rehabbing the building.

Even a curiously timed court subpoena the City of Chicago's Building Department served on the county the day before the vote did not persuade commissioners to back the demolition.

Also Tuesday, Stroger ally Commissioner Roberto Maldonado postponed a vote on hiking the cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1. Maldonado could count on only eight votes, including Stroger's, on the 17-member board.

Four Democrats have joined forces with the board's five Republicans to try to force changes in Stroger's budget. They refused to approve a 4 percent lease tax Stroger proposed to plug a hole in his budget. They want Stroger to trim what they consider fat in the budget.

Instead, Maldonado and Stroger thought they would try the cigarette tax hike, which they said could raise about as much as the lease tax: $42 million.

An array of health groups including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society lined up to endorse the tax Tuesday.

But even some commissioners who liked the tax hike said they would not vote for it until after Stroger cut the budget.

Stroger will meet one-on-one with commissioners to talk compromise. He canceled a make-up vote on the budget that had been scheduled for Thursday. Because the fiscal year started Dec. 1 without a new budget, county workers will not see raises in Friday's paychecks. They will be paid retroactively once the board passes a budget.

Commissioner Earlean Collins, who provided the crucial ninth vote against Stroger's budget, Tuesday introduced amendments to reform the budgeting process, including one to require Stroger to get board approval for major appointments.

Five commissioners are new to the board and some said they smelled something fishy about the city's building department summoning the county to court to demand shoring-up of the building's facade just as Stroger was looking for arguments to hasten demolition. But county officials said it was just the normal pace at which the court case -- prompted by an inspection of the building in July -- occurred.

Commissioners who support demolition said any developers wanting to rehab the building should submit proposals in the next month, and they should not expect any financial assistance from the county.

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