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At forum in Northlake, little support for Cook County beverage tax

Monday, September 11, 2017
Chicago Tribune

Ralph Venturini, the owner of Ozzie's Deli in Melrose Park, saw sales slide after Cook County put in a cigarette tax. He's seeing it drop further now that a tax is in place on beverages, with customers taking their business across the border to nearby DuPage County.

"And when they do it (shop), they do it for everything," he said, speaking at a public hearing at the Northlake City Hall last week. "They shop for their gas, their groceries, their cigarettes, their pop and their food. All you have to do is drive through DuPage County and look at the signs: 'We do not have Cook County sugar taxes.' Drive to Wisconsin, they'll say 'We welcome your business.' "

Venturini was one of a number of speakers at the Sept. 7 hearing, expressing frustration about the latest tax — made all the more glaring because Northlake and other towns around it sit close to the county boundary.

State Rep. Kathleen Willis, who hosted the hearing, is sponsoring House Bill 4083, which would repeal Cook County's penny-per-ounce beverage tax on sweetened drinks such as soda as well as some sport drinks and fruit juices.

And though she's not in favor of a beverage tax, if one does come through, "it cannot be piecemeal like this because it kills us," she said at the hearing. "It's sending people to other counties."

Cook County Board members Jeffrey Tobolski, whose 16th District includes Northlake, Franklin Park, Melrose Park, Riverside and many of the towns that lie close to Cook County's border, and Richard Boykin, 1st District, joined Willis at the meeting, speaking in support of a repeal.

Both Tobolski and Boykin had voted against the tax, which passed on a tiebreaking vote by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle last November.

Preckwinkle has been defending the tax's positives, such as providing a way to fight health problems. In a Chicago Tribune story published last week, she said her "expectation is that we will continue to collect this tax."

Tobolski spoke of a spiraling budget and a move to meet those expenses with taxes rather than cuts in services not considered essential.

"County government historically has been a safety net to provide services to assist local government," said Tobolski, "and it just seems the last couple of years we're kind of going down a bad path of being Big Brother, and we've got our nose in everything."

He said the county budget passed last year at $4.2 billion was up over a billion from the budget passed in 2010. Some of the increase can be attributed to personnel costs, he said. But some areas, such as money going into the Cook County health and hospitals system, can be brought way down, more in line with the county's mission, he suggested.

Instead, "we are continuing to pass these taxes, people get upset, they shop elsewhere, revenue isn't realized. It just creates a vicious circle," he said.

Boykin also argued the county was taking the wrong approach.

"I think it's the wrong thing for government to do — to tell people what is best for you," Boykin said. "These taxes have never worked. What next — ice cream, Twinkies, cupcakes, pies?"

Concerns the tax purportedly seeks to address, such as obesity and diabetes, could be made the subject of "a public health campaign, teaching people to make better choices," he said.

During citizen comment, several speakers questioned the true motive behind the tax.

"It's not about the kids. It's about a way to generate income on the backs of the people who pay the taxes," said Phil Sasso, a resident of unincorporated Leyden Township.

Sue Douglas, another speaker, said she was upset that the tax includes diet soda, and flavored water, drinks that have nothing to do with sugar at all.

Douglassaid, "I always made it a point to shop in North Riverside," her town. " There's a Costco there; there's a Jewel there. I refuse to shop in Cook County anymore."

"I'll go over the border to DuPage and my son, who think that soda is a sometime food, also learns a civics lesson because every time I drink a soda, (I say) mmm … tax-free soda," she said to applause.

A number of workers from the Pepsi/Snapple facility located in Northlake, some still in their work shirts, also turned out at the meeting, expressing concerns about their future.

Juan Garcia, a driver, figured his Labor Day drop-offs would take at least until mid-afternoon, he told his audience. As the day went on, because drop-offs were so light, "I was the first driver out (done) at 9:30 in the morning," he reported.

A hiring freeze is in place at the plant, and the point is getting "very close," where there may have to be cuts, a company representative confirmed at the meeting.

Garcia said the situation is forcing him to take on a second job.

"I just think it's wrong," he said.

Don Smith, a Melrose Park resident, was the lone speaker to speak in support of the tax, citing trends toward obesity among young people.

"If you want children to have severe diabetes before high school, just keep pumping salt and sugar into them," he told his audience, adding, "OK, now you can start booing," acknowledging he was in the minority.

No one did.

Willis stressed the intent is not to discourage healthy trends.

"What we see is it is sort of hypocritical to say this is going to fix our kids," she said. "It's more encompassing."

Proviso Community Partners, for instance, "has done some great things" working toward a healthier community. "One of the things we're working on is getting rid of these food deserts where you have have the opportunity to get health food options," she said.

Also, "we want to make sure we have healthy recreation for our children … places they can be safe (after school) so they're not just going latchkey back home with a bag of potato chips and a soft drink," Willis said.

Chicago Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.

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