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Stroger may experience first snag over county budget

Tuesday, December 09, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times

For eight years, Cook County Board President John Stroger has passed his budgets without breaking a sweat.

But for the first time in his presidency, he faces the prospect of delaying today's scheduled budget vote because he cannot get the minimum nine votes to pass a new 4 percent lease tax.

Stroger was working Monday night to win over County Board member Earlean Collins, who was willing to vote with Stroger on hiking the county sales tax a quarter-percent, but not the lease tax.

County Board Finance Chairman John Daley said it could be this morning before the administration knows whether it has the votes to pass the budget.

Stroger boasts that he has worked hard to streamline county government, cutting the number of jobs controlled by his office, going five years without raising the property tax and winning the county its highest-ever bond ratings.

But Stroger's critics say he still has plenty of overpaid cronies hidden in the budget he could cut, as do other county officers such as Sheriff Michael Sheahan. And while Stroger has held the line on property taxes, he has invented new taxes, such as a dollar-a-day parking tax at downtown garages and the proposed new lease tax.

Five new commissioners were elected a year ago as headlines revealed mismanagement in county government. Now three Democratic board members and all five Republicans are committed to voting against Stroger's budget, saying he can cut waste instead of raising taxes.

Collins, a former state legislator representing the West Side and some western suburbs, has clashed with Stroger but supported him on some issues. She and board members Roberto Maldonado and Joan Patricia Murphy -- who have been more loyal though not lockstep supporters of Stroger -- have been targeted by business interests that say the taxes would drive businesses from Cook County.

The movie industry in particular says the lease tax would undo the good Gov. Blagojevich did earlier this year with tax breaks to lure movies back from low-tax Toronto.

One possible settlement: The Stroger administration is floating a proposal for a 2 percent -- instead of 4 percent -- tax on leased items.

The $3 billion county budget pays for the sheriff's office, the Cook County Jail, Stroger Hospital and county health clinics and the county's prosecutors and public defenders.

The same board members, wearing different hats as the county forest preserve board, will meet again Wednesday morning to vote on Stroger's proposed $40 million operating budget for the Cook County Forest Preserves. New commissioners will challenge that budget as well.



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