In the quest to preserve her cent-per-ounce tax on many sweetened beverages, Toni Preckwinkle keeps threatening citizens with shabbier public services. The Cook County Board president’s warnings, delivered to commissioners Thursday, boil down to this: Keep this 2-month-old tax in force or we’ll have to slash spending on criminal justice and public health.
Her pitch evidently didn’t impress Finance Chairman John Daley, one of the board’s more influential members and usually a Preckwinkle loyalist. After Thursday’s meeting, Daley, who voted last year to impose the soda tax, told the Tribune’s Hal Dardick that he will vote to repeal it when board members consider that reversal Tuesday. If at least two other commissioners who voted for the tax defect with Daley, then opponents of the tax would have enough votes to override a Preckwinkle veto of the repeal measure. The soda tax would die.
Preckwinkle didn’t predict during her budget speech Thursday that carjackers from an understaffed county jail will run wild on the Kennedy Expressway, or that laid-off county doctors will push hospital patients into the Chicago River. But that’s the sort of frightful images politicians hope to conjure when they — like the taxpayers who pay their salaries — have to limit spending to income. This menacing gambit is easier for city mayors, who can threaten to close the police department and pawn the firetrucks.
Preckwinkle’s threats rest on three suppositions the 17 county commissioners ought to challenge. She would have taxpayers believe that this chronically featherbedded government needs all of its current employees in order to do all the tasks it’s been doing, at a price driven by costly labor contracts she’s negotiated with public employees unions.
Commissioners, we urge you to vote Tuesday to repeal this tax. Just as important, though, we urge you to delve into the cumulative wage increases Preckwinkle’s administration is doling out to happy union leaders. You have to determine whether the point of the soda tax is to meet essential needs — or to cover egregiously generous raises for county workers.
We’ve had a hard time getting straight answers. Maybe you’ll have more success. But don’t fall for the convenient excuses from county finance staffers that labor contracts are complicated by so-called “step” and cost-of-living increases, or that the latest contract numbers aren’t yet available, or blah, blah, blah.
Here, commissioners, is the question you and your staffs should press on behalf of your constituents: Cook County’s total annual employee compensation, divided by the number of full-time-equivalent employees, has grown by what percentage since Preckwinkle took office in December 2010? Be sure to count the newly negotiated contract raises her administration hasn’t yet disclosed — not just for the 2018 election year, but for the full life of those contracts.
Oh, and if you’re wondering whether Cook County’s rising compensation costs are out of whack: During Preckwinkle’s nearly seven years in office, the U.S. consumer price index has climbed by a modest 12 percent. Remember, too, that a lot of taxpayers haven’t had anything near a 12-percent cumulative rise in income over these seven years.
Commissioners, as you work toward a budget for the fiscal year that starts Dec. 1, maybe Preckwinkle can convince you — and maybe you can convince the rest of us — that county labor contracts aren’t giveaways to the politically helpful unions that hold so much sway at the County Building.
The unions, of course, see higher taxation as the solution to every problem. Preckwinkle, who won office by opposing her predecessor’s ruinous sales tax hike, hasn’t only reinstated that tax hike. She’s fallen into the Cook County tradition of taxing whatever she can. We long speculated that county government eventually will tax cats’ tails and deep breaths.
That’s the thinking that gave Cook County this soda tax. Repeal it — and get to the bottom of county compensation costs.