Commissioners wary of tax hike
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Most Northwest Side county commissioners said that they would vote against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposal to increase the sales tax by 1 percentage point to pay for the county’s pension system obligation, but they agreed that Preckwinkle likely will find enough votes to ensure its passage.
Preckwinkle has called a special meeting of the board for 11 a.m. today to discuss the tax increase.
Preckwinkle has proposed increasing the sales tax to produce about $473 million a year to reduce the $479 million shortfall in pension payments.
Under former president Todd Stroger, the 17-member board voted in February of 2008 to increase the county sales tax from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent, increasing the combined sales tax rate in Chicago to 10.25 percent. The board eventually overrode Stroger’s veto on a 12-5 vote and rolled back the sales tax from 1.75 percent to 1.25 percent.
Preckwinkle campaigned on repealing the remaining portion of the sales tax increase by reducing the tax by 0.25 percent in both 2012 and 2013.
"It makes no sense to me at all because she got elected on the basis of repealing the sales tax and now she is revisiting the idea that was not very popular," county Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13) said. "I think it’s a tight vote, but I don’t think that she has the votes yet."
Suffredin said that when he voted in favor of the sales tax under Stroger, the county was strapped for revenue. "When we approved it, most of that money went straight into the budget," he said. "This time around things are different."
Suffredin said that Preckwinkle should have included the sales tax proposal during the budget process, which typically runs from October to November. If the sales tax is approved by the end of September, the county can start collecting the revenue
"This time around we don’t need this," Suffredin said. "Once you cross that 10 percent threshold, some of that burden will again be felt by everybody. Malls like Golf Mill or Old Orchard will automatically begin suffering because people will just drive to the other counties like they did before. This is the wrong tax."
County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12) said that this would be one of the easiest votes for him since he became a commissioner in 2010.
"I made a commitment to my voters that I would not raise property or sales taxes and I intend to keep that commitment, but the reality is that she will likely find the votes that she needs," Fritchey said.
Fritchey said that there is no question that there will be a budget shortfall and that the pensions will be unfunded. "But at the same time, the problem we have he here is not something that should have been unforeseen and this is essentially a bait and switch," he said.
Fritchey said that more could be cut from the budget.
"This is a different county board then when I was elected," Fritchey said. "We had reduced overhead and we had repealed the sales tax increase, and that put us in a good financial position, so there is no question that we have made progress, but if it passes, the unpopular Stroger tax will now be called the Preckwinkle tax."
"This will send the wrong messages because there was an outrage over the Stroger tax, and now with the Preckwinkle tax a lot of people will feel duped," Fritchey said.
County Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-9) said that he would vote against the sales tax.
"The tax revolves around the pensions because we have a big pension problem here," Silvestri said. "The administration did a great job over the last few years in getting the finances in order, but the sales tax is very important to me and I would welcome different options because I’m not voting for it."
Silvestri said that he has received calls from constituents and officials from suburban municipalities who are concerned about the increase. He said that motorists will shop for gas in other counties and that gas station owners have told him that they would not open in Cook County because of the tax.
"I’m hearing a lot of unhappy voices, but I think that because there is so much bad news with the city pensions, the Chicago Public Schools, the state’s woes, that people are getting hit with too much and there is an overflow, but people will become aware of the magnitude that this will have on their lives," Fritchey said. "Some commissioners are of the mindset that there is no better alternative and some are allied with the president. The president has shown the ability to pass anything, whether it’s good or bad, and unfortunately I think she will be able to pass the sales tax."
A meeting hasn’t been called for this week, which some commissioners said means that Preckwinkle doesn’t have the votes yet.
Preckwinkle said that she would reconsider raising the sales tax if the General Assembly passes a pension bill that she had proposed.
"The damage is done the minute it passes, so she can say what she wants, but some of use don’t believe that we need more money," Suffredin said. "That doesn’t mean we would wouldn’t be better off with more, but I think we could get by on what we have if we budgeted properly."