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Tax increase may hinge on a single vote
Faced with his first budget battle, Stroger claims there's nowhere to cut. Reformers say otherwise

Sunday, December 07, 2003
Daily Southtown

For the first time since winning the Cook County Board presidency in 1993, John Stroger will face a serious challenge to a budget proposal when it comes before the full board Tuesday.
The budget showdown will be a political test for Stroger an old-fashioned ward boss who reveres loyalty and prefers his confrontations to take place behind closed doors.

With potential opposition from the five Republicans on the 17-member board, Stroger faces resistance from members of his own party, too. Three first-term Democrats are leading the charge against Stroger's blueprint, bringing the total to eight.

That leaves them one vote shy of blocking Stroger's proposals to create a lease tax and raise the county's sales tax. They are hoping that vote would come from their freshman colleague, Patricia Joan Murphy, a Democrat from Crestwood.

"There were five (freshmen) elected last year, and we played off each other as we ran in giving people the confidence that we would bring reforms to this board," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13th) of Evanston. "If she breaks, she's the only one, and I think it's a mistake for her, but it's her decision."

Murphy (D-6th) said she plans to vote with Stroger.

"If I look like a reformer or don't look like a reformer, I've been in public office for many years, and sometimes you have to make a hard choice," she said. "I've given it a lot of thought, and it is difficult, but we have to look out for our programs. A lot of people depend on the county, and the (opposition group) has not shown me how this can work without cutting services."

Other potential swing votes for Suffredin's group could come from Democratic commissioners Roberto Maldonado and Earlean Collins of Chicago.

"I am concerned about the lease tax," Maldonado (D-8th) said. "Illinois would become the only state that would allow for a double taxation. That's wrong."

The 4 percent lease tax on Cook County residents would be on top of a 6 percent lease tax already in place in Chicago. In other words, Chicago residents would pay 10 percent extra to rent or lease everything from videos to new cars and heavy equipment.

Collins (D-1st) didn't return a call for comment.

The sales tax increase would boost the county's share of the tax by a quarter of a cent, from 0.75 percent to 1 percent.

Potentially at stake are county jobs, services and taxpayers' wallets.

"This is the first time in 17 years on the board that I've seen this much contention around the budget," said Commissioner Bobbie Steele (D-2nd), who said she committed to supporting Stroger's recommendations.

Stroger said his tax proposals are necessary to keep up with rising costs while holding the county's property tax levy steady at $720.5 million for a fifth consecutive year. Unlike other taxing bodies that capture more property tax revenue each year because of increasing property values, Cook County has dropped its tax rate to offset the increase in property values, Stroger noted.

But some members on the county board say the budget is still too fat. The standoff has created two contrasting portrayals of Cook County government: A lean operation with the overwhelming and expensive responsibility of caring for the county's poorest vs. a bureaucratic beast that takes care of the politically connected.

"Our biggest obstacle is that the board is not used to having this be a legislative process where the legislative body presents amendments," Suffredin said. "They're used to the Enron model of a board, which means if the CEO presents something, you ratify it."

Unlike the state Legislature, which routinely revises the governor's proposed budget, the Cook County Board traditionally has gone along with the president's recommendations. Some board members say they trust Stroger's financial advisers.

"We pay our advisers a good deal of money on how to best run this county, and we have a good bond rating," Murphy said. "Rather than the other first-year commissioners who, like me, haven't been in the business that long, I'm going to rely on our financial advisers."

Those advisers say the alternatives presented by outspoken Stroger critics are "irresponsible" and would cost the county more than 3,000 jobs many of them at the county's hospitals, where qualified doctors, nurses, technicians and pharmacists are desperately needed already.

Stroger said "Jesus couldn't do" what his opponents want him to do with the budget.

Suffredin and his supporters, including commissioners Forrest Claypool (D-12th) and Mike Quigley (D-10th), say tax increases can be avoided without hurting services. In many departments, carrying over unfilled jobs year to year is a way the county squirrels away money. Cleaning up the budget by eliminating the openings would free up revenue for other purposes, the opposition commissioners contend. They say unspent money each year amounts to about $200 million money taxpayers shouldn't be charged in the first place.

They also point to money being spent on consultants and a lawsuit settlement of $40 million sitting untouched in a county account. Stroger said he may need that money for union wages.

Suffredin and some of the other commissioners say not only are some of the tax increases unnecessary, they believe the county can cut spending in 2004 by 2 percent from this year's level.

If the tax increases are shot down, Stroger will have to revise his budget blueprint. That possibility sent Stroger's aides working overtime to convince commissioners the tax increases are the only answer to keep up with rising costs in health care and public safety.

County government should not be pummeled as "wasteful" after five years of responsibly managing the property tax levy, they say.

"There will be a lot of poor people hurt if we follow their suggestions," Stroger said.

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