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Suburbs hold tight to their share of sales tax
Cook County's rollback plea falls on incredulous ears

Friday, September 03, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Graydon Megan

After trimming an unpopular sales tax increase by half a percentage point, the Cook County Board is asking municipalities to follow its example and reduce their own slice of the sales tax pie.

The board reminded county mayors and village presidents in a letter how it had rolled back a portion of the one percentage point increase in the sales tax and encouraged them "to provide some much-needed relief to our citizens."

Local government officials to the County Board: Say, what?

"I saw it (and the Schaumburg board) saw it as a political stunt," said Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson.

"Absolutely not," said Arlington Heights finance director Thomas Kuehne. "Local communities are in no position to do anything. No way."

Mount Prospect Village Manager Michael Janonis was even blunter.

"We're cutting, we're laying off" employees, he said. "We're not going to cut our throats on this thing for their political benefit."

In July 2008, the board increased the county sales tax by one percentage point, more than doubling it to 1.75 percent from 0.75 percent.

The increase was championed by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who vetoed several attempts to reduce it. Stroger's steadfast support for the tax, which he said was necessary to help pay for health care for the county's poor, contributed to his defeat by Chicago Ald. Toni Preckwinkle in the Democratic primary for board president.

The increase pushed Chicago's total tax rate to 10.25 percent, the highest in the country. Even after the cutback, Chicago still leads the nation with the highest sales tax. The county's portion now stands at 1.25 percent.

The tax increase prompted three northwest suburban townships — Barrington, Palatine and Hanover — to ask residents through referendums whether they wanted to secede from Cook County.

Four other townships — Elk Grove, Wheeling, Maine and Schaumburg — asked residents whether the county should repeal the tax increase.

Even some Cook County commissioners weren't swallowing the "tax relief" label.

"In my mind, it was just a partial rollback of an ill-advised tax increase," said Commissioner Tony Peraica, R-Riverside, who voted against the original increase. "I wanted the whole increase rolled back."

"It does seem like a silly resolution," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, who voted for the increase.

Suffredin defended his original vote, saying, "We got an independent health board and stabilized county government."

In Schaumburg, the overall tax rate on general merchandise is 9.5 percent.

Larson, the community's longtime mayor, said that continuing declines in revenue from sales and income taxes forced Schaumburg officials to institute the first property tax in the village's 54-year history.

During the past two years, Schaumburg and many other Cook County suburbs have instituted new taxes and raised various fees — or at least sought voter approval to do so — to try to plug the budget holes left by declining revenue.

Just this year, new motor-fuel taxes took effect in suburbs including Oak Lawn, Des Plaines and Niles while Skokie adopted a new utility tax this year.

Declining revenue forced Arlington Heights to eliminate 40 jobs and cut programs, including a popular teen center, Kuehne said.

And the state, Kuehne said, "is five months behind in paying (the village share of) income tax."

Arlington Heights resident Mark Shalett saw the humor in the County Board's letter, which was mailed out in July.

"You kind of forget after a while that you're paying extra," said Shalett, an accountant. "You grumble but you go about your business."

Prospect Heights Mayor Dolores "Dolly" Vole said she put the county letter and accompanying resolution on the agenda for the committee of the whole so "the rest of the council can see what's going on."

Of the 1.25 percent sales tax in Prospect Heights, 0.25 percent is pledged for road bonds, leaving 1 percent for the city.

"That's all we're surviving on," Vole said.

Trying to hold costs down, Prospect Heights staffs its City Hall only four days a week. The Friday closings mean city employees take what amounts to six weeks of furlough days during the year, officials said.

Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen said the County Board's decision to trim the sales tax was a step in the right direction.

Deetjen said that county, state and federal governments need to continue cutting taxes, not local communities that depend on the money for essential services.

"We use our (sales) taxes to help fund village services such as the police and fire departments," he said. "We rely on taxes to pay these village services."

Orland Park Village Manager Paul Grimes said he doubts the Village Board will take the advice of Cook County and cut its sales tax.

"Nobody seems to know what the county does with the taxes they collect," said Grimes.  "A significant portion of our sales taxes are used on capital improvement projects. That's the main difference here. We know where our money is going."

Lemont Village Manager Benjamin Wehmeier called the county's letter "interesting."

"I'm not a politician so I don't want to comment about why I think they sent it out," he said. "But I can tell you that about 25 percent of our budget comes from sales taxes. It would significantly hurt the village if we didn't collect the tax."

Lemont is unique, he said, because the community borders two other counties, Will and DuPage, that have lower sales taxes than Cook.

"People do leave Lemont and Cook County to shop there," said Wehmeier. "We hear it all the time from people. That's the biggest problem from our point of view."

In Oak Park, spokesman David Powers declined to comment on whether the community would consider a tax rollback, but he said, as others did, that times are financially difficult for municipalities.

"Most towns are in dire straits," said Powers, whose community collects a 2 percent sales tax. "We're financially stable right now. But we're watching every dollar very carefully."

Cicero spokesman Ray Hanania said the county "shouldn't be lecturing us about taxes" and called the letter a distraction.

County taxes, he said, are still very high.

"I think they need to get their act together before telling us what to do," he said.

Freelance reporters Joe Ruzich and Victoria Pierce contributed to this report.


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