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Stroger's phone prank on the taxpayers

Thursday, March 13, 2008
Southtown Star

Late last week, the e-mails started pouring in from people who felt they had found a way to register their opposition to the new sales tax increase in Cook County.

"Who wants to pay 10.25 percent sales tax?" one e-mail after another asked. "Not me..." was the answer supplied by the person who was writing.

"This will make ours the highest sales tax rate in the country. Please send this to your friends and contacts. CALL NOW. It only takes about 15 seconds to punch in your vote. 1-312-603-6400. Then press 1, press 2, and press 2."

Well, in addition to e-mailing their friends and business contacts, people were e-mailing me, asking for a column supporting this phone-call protest.

I figured this was some sort of stunt arranged by a political opponent of county board President Todd Stroger because the board had already approved the 1-percentage-point increase, which is effective July 1. Commissioners passed the sales tax increase by a margin of one vote after heated debate.

But when the e-mails continued coming this week, I decided I would look into the fellow behind this stunt and expose him for the deluded crackpot he is.

Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce you to ... Todd Stroger. Even after I dialed the phone number and got the tape-recorded message, I didn't believe it.

"Thank you for calling the office of Cook County Board President Todd H. Stroger, Please select from the following options: To provide feedback about any proposed issues or ordinances, press 1..."

And sure enough, after I pressed "1" I was told that I could state my position on either the pending gun control ordinance by pressing "1" again or the sales tax increase by pressing "2." I pressed "2" and was told that if I supported the sales tax hike I could press "1" and if I opposed it I should press "2."

This made no sense. Like I said, the tax hike was a done deal. The public hated it, Stroger knew that and still shoved it down the throats of Cook County residents anyway in the wee hours of March 1.

So I telephoned Stroger's press secretary, figuring she would tell me this was all a hoax being perpetrated on the public by that Republican madman, Commissioner Tony Peraica, who's always trying to make Stroger look stupid.

"That's our (telephone) number," said a stunned-sounding Ibis Antongiorgi, Stroger's spokeswoman.

Why the heck is the board president soliciting public opinion on this? Does he have second thoughts?

The press spokesman reacted as I had initially. It didn't make sense. But Stroger's receptionist had requested an automated response system about two months ago when the Chicago Tribune published Stroger's office phone number and urged people to call if they wanted to stop a sales tax hike from being passed.

The receptionist couldn't handle her regular duties and all those calls, so the automated answering system was put in place.

As part of that system, callers were told on a recorded message that they could make their opinion count by pressing the digits on their touch-tone phone.

I wondered how many calls the county had received.

I wondered how many people had voted in favor of the tax increase and how many had voted against.

I wondered how often Stroger goes through the results of the phone-in poll.

"I'll check into that and get back to you," the spokeswoman said.

Well, even if a running vote tally isn't kept, how often does Stroger go through the results?

"I'll check into that and call you back."

An hour later, I received an e-mail message from some of the people who had urged people to call that phone number. The county had removed the voting on the sales tax hike from its automated menu.

"What happened?" the e-mailer wondered.

I knew what had happened. I had called the press spokesman.

It's my belief that for 12 days that automated message remained on the menu because no one in county government bothered to check it.

And they didn't check it because, well, they really don't care what you think about the tax hike or anything else.

Just in case taxpayers still don't get the message, I suggest Stroger actually record one.

"This is Todd H. Stroger and in case you idiots don't get it by now, I don't care what you think."

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