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Enough to Ruin Your Appetite

Tuesday, November 18, 2003
Chicago Tribune

In a rough paraphrase of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen's admonition, a quarter-percent hike on restaurant taxes here and a quarter-percent hike on the sales tax over there, and pretty soon you have the ingredients for serious heartburn for both diners and the local restaurant industry.

That is precisely what Mayor Richard Daley and Cook County Board President John Stroger are poised to do, as each tries to balance the books without considering the cumulative effect of their actions on the city's vital restaurant and tourism industries.

Daley would like to raise about $8 million by upping by .25 percent the city sales tax on prepared food.

Stroger's proposed .25 percent general sales tax hike will also show up on restaurant tabs throughout the county.

Moreover, Stroger is eyeing a 4 percent tax on leases and rentals -- from autos to restaurant equipment and furnishings -- that would be on top of the city's 6 percent lease tax. The county's new lease tax is expected to take in about $47 million.

So here's a news flash for the members of the City Council and County Board: If you all go along with these proposals, diners in the central area of Chicago will get hit with a total 10.25 percent tax -- the highest for any big city in the U.S. It will be another handicap for the city's convention and tourism industry as it tries to compete with sunnier and cheaper climes such as Las Vegas and Orlando.

Downtown Chicago and some close-in neighborhoods already get hit with a 1 percent tax to pay for downtown improvements.

City and county officials need to consider the add-on effect of such hikes, rather than assume that they can keep squeezing Chicago's tax goose with no ill results.

Stroger and Daley don't want to raise property taxes -- a good impulse -- so instead they sprinkle odd little taxes at random and hope nobody notices.

Daley, at least, has a strong track record of tightening city spending. Stroger's government has plenty of room for spending cuts before it resorts to taxes. For example, the Civic Federation, a tax watchdog group, urges elimination of the Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District. The county could save at least $11 million if Stroger gave up on his obsession to tear down the old county hospital -- to make room for nothing in particular -- and instead seriously pursued the possibility of commercial reuse of the building so it could be added to the property-tax rolls.

County and city legislators should not mutter "amen" -- their usual response to tax initiatives by the executive. Conventioneers -- and city and suburban folks looking for a good meal -- have options, and when they're looking at a double-digit sales tax tacked on after dessert, they just may find somewhere else to go.

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