Time to pony up: County passes budgetCOOK COUNTY BUDGET | After months of nasty board battles, an agreement that would drive sales tax up again seems imminent
Saturday, March 01, 2008
by STEVE PATTERSON
A drink at the bar, a fast-food meal and back-to-school shopping are among those things about to get a bit more expensive in Cook County.
Early Saturday, Cook County Commissioners voted 9-8 to approve a 1 percent increase in the sales tax — driving Chicago's overall sales tax to double digits at 10.25 percent, easily among the highest of any big city in America.
What we're paying
How Chicago compares to other U.S. cities based on the sales tax increase set to be passed Friday night.
* Chicago 10.25 percent (includes RTA increase in April and Cook County's)
* Memphis 9.25 percent
* New Orleans 9 percent
* Denver 8.6 percent
* San Francisco 8.5 percent
* New York 8.375 percent
* Los Angeles 8.25 percent
* Houston 8.25 percent
* Dallas 8.25 percent
* San Jose 8.25 percent
Source: Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce
And the new higher tax will be enacted just in time for the Christmas shopping season.
Commissioners had until midnight Friday to pass a balanced budget and, according to the clock in the room, it was 11:55 p.m.
But all other clocks showed it was 12:14 a.m. Saturday when the board finally adjourned with a budget passed.
"Cook County remains open for business," Board President Todd Strogr said to applause. "The board has brought life into this county government."
Stroger successfully passed the new tax by agreeing to give up control of the county hospital system that has long been a patronage dumping ground for decades' worth of politicians.
In exchange, Commissioner Larry Suffredin agreed to provide the swing vote for the sales tax.
It's still possible, commissioners said, for a planned doubling of the county parking tax to be revived next week, to help make ends meet this year.
But a 1 percent sales tax will bring in $71 million this year and $400 million every year after. Commissioners filled a $234 million deficit by borrowing against next year's surplus.
Still, that surplus likely means Stroger, who promised this budget will now allow for "real reform," can avoid having to seek a tax increase in 2009 and possibly in 2010, when he's up for re-election.
Stroger had been one vote away from hiking the sales tax to 2.75 percent and, after months of bartering, said he refused to come below 2 percent.
Friday afternoon, Stroger and other officials filed suit against the county board, in case a budget wasn't passed by midnight. A judge was set to intervene in the budget process.
That lawsuit led to a day of heavy negotiating - including much intervention by Dennis Gannon, of the Chicago Federation of Labor, and Sheriff Tom Dart.
Sources said Stroger was willing to barter, but advisors close to him kept talking him out of it. That led to shouting matches and bruised egos on both sides. Finally, a breakthrough came Friday afternoon.
And though Suffredin campaigned for state's attorney on a boast that he had "stood up to Todd Stroger's tax increases," and as of Friday night, his Web site still quotes him as saying "at this point, I see no need for any increase in taxes," he insisted his change came for the good of the health system.
The compromise proposal calls for 14 officials from the medical, civic and labor community to pick 20 nominees to a hospital governing board. From there, Stroger will pick nine, to be approved by the county board.
Suffredin says that new board, to sit for at least three years, will bring true independence and professionalism to the hospital system and limit patronage opportunities.
Commissioner Roberto Maldonado was the only vote against the new board set-up, saying he wanted more Latino voices on it.
And while the hospital governance got overwhelming approval, a new sales tax drew immediate scorn.
"Chicago now has the unfortunate notoriety of having the highest sales tax in the country, and our region will now be a more expensive place to visit, live, work and operate a business," said Jerry Roper, head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. "The people of our region should be outraged."
Suffredin scoffed at that.
"I've heard them say that for 30 years," he said. "I look downtown and only see cranes."