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We've got the tax hike blues

Monday, November 29, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Hold on to your wallet.

The City of Chicago, the Park District, the Board of Education and Cook County government are all preparing to reach into your pocket.

If that's not burden enough, the CTA either plans to cut service by 20 percent, raise fares by 25 cents -- to $2 -- or impose a painful combination of the two after coming up empty in Springfield.

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is doubling tolls for non-I-Pass users and truckers. And Chicago Skyway tolls are about to go up 20 percent -- to $2.50 -- and could climb as high as $5 by 2017 under a $1.82 billion privatization deal that helped Mayor Daley hold the line on property taxes in 2005.

It's almost as if every one of the governmental agencies is singing from the same tax-and-spend hymn book.

Everybody's singing solo in hopes taxpayers won't notice. But when you put it all together, the sound is deafening.

'We're getting hit everywhere'

"The aggregate of this is almost like a death by a thousand cuts," said Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

"We're getting hit everywhere," said Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

"I can understand the tough decisions they have to make to meet their budgets, but our industry is already overtaxed. It's ridiculous. ... They can't keep riding on the backs of small businesses."

"At what point do we get beyond our capacity?" said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, arguing that personnel costs should be reduced and privatization increased before asking taxpayers to pay more.

Msall said officials "need to understand their government doesn't exist in a vacuum -- that they're part of the broader picture. ... We are quickly approaching a point with our sales and use taxes where the Chicago region [has reached] a negative level -- where the taxes will have the opposite impact in terms of revenues."

Not about to cut teachers

The taxation choir started innocently enough.

For the sixth straight year and the eighth time since Daley seized control over the Chicago Public Schools, the Board of Education disclosed plans to raise property taxes to the maximum allowed by a tax cap.

Daley, who has gone out of his way to hold the line on the city's levy, promptly defended the $40 million increase as unavoidable. He argued that the School Board has already made painful cuts and he's not about to "start cutting teachers."

Daley's City Hall was next up to the microphone.

After postponing his budget unveiling and presenting aldermen with a staggering array of tax choices, the mayor surprised everyone by ordering nearly every item on his tax menu -- to the tune of $86.9 million.

Chicagoans will be asked to pay higher taxes on everything from sales, cigarettes, liquor and natural gas to parking, amusements, hotel rooms and car rentals. The 0.25 percentage-point sales tax increase will leave Chicago with the highest sales tax in the nation at 9 percent.

"They say they will not raise the property tax, but you pay one way or another," Roper said. "At some point, you say to yourself, 'Am I better off with a property tax increase over all of these other taxes?' -- which, frankly, are never going to come off."

Daley's $10.3 million fee package may sound like nickel-and-dime stuff, but the burden on special interest groups could be staggering.

Festivals will pay $150,000 for police services now provided for free. Sidewalk cafe permits will cost $1,000 instead of $600. Bars that stay open until 4 a.m. will pay $3,000 for the privilege, up from $2,200.

Last week, the Daley-controlled Chicago Park District chimed in with plans for a $12 million property tax increase and $3 million more in higher parking, boat-docking and recreation fees.

The mayor signed off on the increase and publicly defended it. He argued that the Park District bureaucracy, long viewed as bloated and inefficient, had been cut to the bone and that it was virtually impossible to cut any more.

Cook County government had the final tax solo. With the mayor's brother County Board Finance Committee Chairman John Daley standing at his side, County Board President John Stroger said he had a $146 million budget hole that would likely be filled by -- surprise -- raising taxes.

'Tremendously negative effect'

The possibilities include higher taxes on sales, hotel rooms, cigarettes, amusements, prepared food and beverages.

Stroger sounded like he was reading from Daley's budget script -- from the budget delay and pick-your-poison menu to the specific tax increases he laid out on the buffet. Just like the mayor's smorgasbord, it was enough to choke a horse.

The 0.5 percentage point increase in the city's hotel tax -- and still-undetermined county increase -- would further strain a hospitality industry that has yet to fully recover from the travel slowdown that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

It would raise Chicago's hotel tax to 15.4 percent, "higher than the major cities we compete with for convention business," said Marc Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association.

"Any more would be devastating," Gordon said, citing the 9 percent hotel tax in Las Vegas and the 12 percent levy in Orlando, Chicago's trade show competitors.

Piling on sales and liquor tax increases at both the city and county levels would "have a tremendously negative effect" on hotel business and "continue to put Chicago at a disadvantage in competing for conventions," Gordon said.

As choking as the looming tax burden may seem, there could be even more bad news on the horizon.

On Day One of City Council hearings, Budget Director John Harris warned aldermen that if the pay hike "assumptions" in Daley's 2005 budget turn out to be too low -- or if an independent arbitrator now mulling the new police contract is more generous -- there "may be some pressure" to make even more difficult choices.

The alternatives include another painful round of employee layoffs or -- hold on to your wallets again -- even higher taxes.


The high cost of living in Chicago

It doesnít matter whether you live here or not ó itís soon likely going to cost more to work, shop, eat or even just drive through Chicago and Cook County.

Toll increase to $2.50
City reaps benefits by turning over operations to private firm; drivers face tolls as high as $5 by 2017.

$7 a pack in Chicago, $3.50 in the burbs
Tax for smokes triples in city, following county increase last year.

Could rise by 25 cents to $2
Service cuts are threatened, as is a yet-to-be-determined fare increase.

20 percent increase proposed
Would drive city tax on a case of beer from 36 cents to 43 cents and on a bottle of liquor from 30 cents to 36 cents, on top of increased taxes for 4 a.m. liquor licenses, sidewalk cafes, festivals, concerts and other amusements.

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