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Preckwinkle's tax-laden 2016 county budget easily passes

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's $4.5 billion budget won approval Wednesday, and people who shop, stay in hotels and file lawsuits will be paying more next year.

Overall county spending is expected to increase by about $500 million under a budget commissioners approved 12-5. The spending plan depends on a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, a new 1 percent tax on hotels and $20 in additional fees for each lawsuit filed. Preckwinkle's budget also includes a 20-cents-per-milliliter tax on the liquids that fuel electronic cigarettes and a bullet tax that ranges from 1 cent to 5 cents per round, depending on the type of ammunition.

All told, the tax hikes are expected to bring in nearly $512 million a year, with the bulk of that $474 million coming from the sales tax increase.

Come Jan. 1, Chicago once again will have a sales tax rate of 10.25 percent, the highest among big U.S. cities. After the vote, Preckwinkle told commissioners she knew "it was a difficult process for all of you," then issued a warning.

 "We have, I must say, tough budgets ahead of us, and as someone pointed out earlier, we're going to have to begin next week in planning for the budget for 2017, which will be similarly challenging," said Preckwinkle, who has not ruled out future tax hikes.

Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, who voted against the budget, said more could have been done to cut spending and decried the effect on taxpayers. "We're asking them to do more with less," Fritchey said. "And we're telling them that we can't do, not even more with less, that we can't do the same with less."

Most of the money from the sales tax will be used to start reducing the county's $6.5 billion government worker pension fund shortfall. The rest will be spent on paying back debt, construction projects and technology upgrades.

The hotel tax, which takes effect in May, is expected to generate about $31 million a year, but only about $15.4 million for next year's budget. The money will be used to help pay day-to-day county operating costs. Overall taxes on hotel rooms in Chicago will rise to 17.4 percent.

Preckwinkle turned to the hotel tax hike after it was clear she could not get a majority of commissioners to back her proposal to extend the county's 3 percent amusement tax to cable TV and recreational activities such as bowling, golf and many for-profit sports leagues.

The board, however, did approve adding the amusement tax to transactions by bricks-and-mortar ticket resellers to raise about $750,000 a year.

To balance the books, Preckwinkle delayed cost-of-living salary increases for nonunion employees and deferred some maintenance while scaling back a behavioral health service program expansion within the county's vast public health system.

The salary hike delays were opposed by Garvin Ambrose, chief of staff to State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has become a political foe of Preckwinkle with the board president backing Alvarez challenger Kim Foxx in the March Democratic primary.

Ambrose said more than 800 assistant state's attorneys would be getting a raise later than promised. Money from the bullet tax, about $320,000 a year, will help fund public safety and health programs. And the fees on court filings, which are expected to bring in about $4.9 million a year, will be used to upgrade circuit court clerk technology and help fund document storage.

The tax increases come in stark contrast to an overall lowering of taxes during Preckwinkle's first term. Last week, Preckwinkle would not rule out further tax or fee increases in coming years. She noted that payments for debts incurred before she first took office in 2010 would continue to rise, and so would the day-to-day costs of county government.

Preckwinkle's cuts totaled about $112 million. With federal dollars pouring in to the county's public health system through the Affordable Care Act, local taxpayer funding dropped by around $43 million. She also reduced spending by about $33 million by not filling 236 vacant jobs and cutting another 51, about evenly split between offices she controls and that of Sheriff Tom Dart.

Here's how they voted on the budget Wednesday: Yes: Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park; Jerry "Iceman" Butler, D-Chicago; Stanley Moore, D-Chicago; Deborah Sims, D-Chicago; Joan Murphy, D-Crestwood; Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, D-Chicago; Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago; John Daley, D-Chicago; Jeffrey Tobolski, D-McCook; Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago; Robert Steele, D-Chicago; Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park. No: Gregg Goslin, R-Glenview; John Fritchey, D-Chicago; Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston; Timothy Schneider, R-Bartlett; Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park.

Three commissioners who voted for the budget Wednesday had earlier voted against the major tax increases. They were Boykin, who voted against the sales tax increase; and Gainer and Silvestri, who voted against both the sales and hotel tax hikes.



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