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We can balance Cook County's budget without dangerous layoffs — or a soda tax

Monday, July 24, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Richard Boykin

Cook County government headed into Fiscal Year 2017 expecting to balance its budget in part with $68 million in revenue generated by the sweetened beverage tax that narrowly passed the Cook County Board last fall.

This $68 million can no longer be counted on, due to a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. As part of the initial phase of that lawsuit, a judge has granted a temporary restraining order that prevents the county from imposing the sweetened beverage tax.

From the moment it was first proposed, the sweetened beverage tax was based on a dishonest premise. Board President Toni Preckwinkle tried to sell it to commissioners and residents as a public health initiative, aimed at reducing obesity.

In fact, the tax was never about health — it was always about revenue. Taxpayers saw through the public health charade from the beginning. Now the Cook County Circuit Court has also seen through the charade.

As a result, President Preckwinkle presently confronts a fiscal crisis that she herself manufactured.

Unfortunately, rather than deal with the crisis collaboratively, with an eye toward maintaining essential public safety services during a time when we face severe levels of gun violence in the county, President Preckwinkle has once again yoked herself and the county to a false premise.

The board president now insists that without the sweetened beverage tax, the county must make sweeping, disastrous cuts to essential public safety services. These across-the-board cuts impact services we can ill afford to lose amid rampant shootings in poor communities of color.

However, just as her assertion that the sweetened beverage tax was motivated by public health turned out to be a false justification designed to push through a revenue grab, President Preckwinkle's current insistence on these painful cuts presents the judiciary with another false choice designed to intimidate.

Allow the tax, she is saying, or I will withhold services from the communities that need them the most. And absent those services, those communities will almost certainly see more pain, more violence, more senseless death.

These disingenuous strong-arm tactics got us into this mess. They will not get us out of it.

Instead, President Preckwinkle should reverse course and do the following:

1. Ask Chairman John Daley to convene an ongoing, emergency meeting of his County Board Finance Committee. Do not adjourn the meeting until key areas of waste in county government have been identified for immediate spending freezes and reductions. We know from previous budget hearings where the fat is. It's long past time that we trim it. Immediate areas of opportunity include procurement, litigation and overtime.

2. Institute an immediate, countywide hiring freeze, exempting those positions that are court-ordered.

3. Immediately eliminate the 1,500 positions in the county budget that are vacant. I estimate this action itself would save $70 million.

4. After the above three actions are taken, President Preckwinkle should call a special meeting of the Board of Commissioners in August to consider enacting an emergency package of reductions that accomplish meaningful savings while continuing to provide vital services.

President Preckwinkle would have us believe that the above course of action is impossible. It is not.

Cook County never needed a sweetened beverage tax to operate with both efficiency and compassion. Now that we do not have that tax for the foreseeable future, we have another opportunity to achieve meaningful reforms while protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

It is time for President Preckwinkle to abandon her bullying tactics and work with others to solve these long-standing problems.

Richard Boykin is the 1st District Cook County commissioner.



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