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Preckwinkle blames state lawmakers for proposed sales tax hike

Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

 - Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle - Erik Unger


Blame state lawmakers, not me.

That's the message today from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as she goes on the offensive on behalf of her proposal for a penny-on-the-dollar hike in the county's sales tax. That would force most county residents to pay an overall tax of more than 10 percent every time they go to the store.

In an appearance at the City Club this morning and a statement—Preckwinkle also is scheduled to speak with Crain's editorial board later today—the county board chief said the Legislature's failure to deal with a pension reform bill she originally filed more than a year ago has forced county finances to the breaking point, with its unfunded pension liability rising $30 million a month.

"While I am still willing to work with the governor and the legislative leaders to secure our pension reform, I refuse to wait and kick the can down the road to bankruptcy," Preckwinkle said. "The more you kick the can, the heavier and bigger it gets, until one day, it kicks back."

Despite the president's offensive, the proposed levy has opposition on the county board and its ultimate passage is uncertain.

Preckwinkle did not mention the possibility of raising the levy in her re-election campaign last year and, in fact, she bragged about slashing a previous increase in the levy that was imposed by then-board chief Todd Stroger.

She said she would "re-evaluate the county's revenue needs and make the appropriate changes to the sales tax levy" if her pension reform plan is adopted. But she did not get more specific, arguing only that, unlike Stroger, she has made county government much more efficient, with fewer workers on the payroll and outstanding bonded debt down $236 million.

Preckwinkle said the levy would pull in a projected $308 million a year, 90 percent of which would go to pensions. She said she has ordered her financial team to come up with another $100 million a year in cuts, including implementing an automated timekeeping system, slashing vacant positions, cutting the county's fleet of vehicles and conducting an audit to ensure that only eligible workers get county benefits.

Word that Preckwinkle was considering restoring the sales tax to the original Stroger size leaked out last week after she began meeting with commissioners to get their support. A vote could come at almost any time, even though the actual county budget for 2016 will not be introduced until the fall.

Preckwinkle at one time was considering a hike in the county's property tax, which has not gone up since 1994, but apparently ran into strong opposition.

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