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Preckwinkle budget hits cable TV and golf, but includes lots of cuts

Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle today moved to zap cable TV users, golfers and ticket resellers by extending the county's 3 percent amusement tax.

But with even bigger money already in hand—since the board this summer enacted a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax —Preckwinkle also unveiled some spending cuts that already are drawing fire as part of her proposed fiscal 2016 county budget.

The item that will make most of the news is the amusement tax extension, which according to a statement from Preckwinkle's office is "aimed at closing exemptions . . . for in-home cable, ticket resellers and recreational activities such as golf, while holding the tax rate steady at 3 percent."

The levy apparently will not apply to major sporting events, such as Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks games.

Preckwinkle also is proposing about $10 million a year in circuit court fees and a $1.5 million tax on e-cigarettes. "After the sales tax, asking for an additional $30 million is a bit much," said County Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin, an occasional Preckwinkle critic.

On the expenditure side, the big item is a $39 million reduction in the subsidy given to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, to $125 million from $164 million.

Health officials were not immediately available to comment, but the cut could impinge on services if the system is not able to replace it with revenue from Obamacare and other programs.

The county chief said her budget includes $32.6 million in personnel cuts, including trims in the sheriff's office that will stem from shuttering three buildings on the jail campus.

With the jail population now at its lowest level since 1991, "it is logical and fiscally responsible to reduce the number of divisions at the jail."

The county's overall employee headcount would drop 1.2 percent—to 23,419 in 2016 from 23,706 in 2015—under the spending plan, "largely by eliminating vacancies, but also with some layoffs."

Sheriff Tom Dart's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but he is believed to back the reductions.

Preckwinkle said she also wants to consolidate the county's two general warehouses into one, and hopes to lease for private use an additional 75,000 square feet at the county-owned building at 69 W. Washington St.

A couple of cuts drew fire from Suffredin, including roughly $1 million for a drug diversion program in the state's attorney's office and a $3 million program designed to avert home foreclosures.

The sales tax will bring in roughly $474 million on an annual basis, but only $308 million in 2016, when it will be phased in. Some of that money will be spent on highway projects in the suburbs, but most will go toward the county's underfunded pension plan.

The budget overall is about $4 billion and will cover the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

Preckwinkle is to meet with Crain's editorial board later today, and I should have more details then. Budget details should be available later today at the county's website.

12:30 p.m. update — Sheriff Dart supports the cuts in his office, because the programs affected are lightly used and can be handled otherwise, according to a spokeswoman.

5 p.m. update — In a statement, Jack Segal, a spokesman for Comcast out of Chicago, said the company "appreciates Cook County's efforts to create a responsible budget, but this increase could make it harder for many Cook County families to gain access to cable TV services.”

“Most everyone watches TV, and for many, it provides their most consistent and reliable source of news, information and entertainment . . . This latest tax increase, combined with other recent tax and fee increases on cable TV services, would create an average additional burden of about $100 a year for millions of households in the county. That's a huge dollar amount for any family to absorb."



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