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Cook County board hikes taxes
By Rob Olmstead | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/29/2008 12:40 PM | Updated: 3/1/2008 11:18 AM

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In his campaign commercials for State's Attorney, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin boasted "At 6'4", a big guy, I stand my ground. … As a reformer, I stood up to Todd Stroger's tax increases."

Friday, though, it was Larry Suffredin who provided Cook County Board President Todd Stroger with his ninth vote for his $459 million tax hike -- $426 million from a 1 percentage point hike in the sales tax and $33 million from doubling the county parking tax. The sales tax was approved Friday night and the parking tax vote will be scheduled for a board meeting within the month.

Stroger had been stymied for months in his quest for a sales tax increase. Time after time, Stroger was able to muster eight votes, but couldn't get one more to reach a majority.

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New taxes on the way

Cook County commissioners raised nearly $500 million in new annual taxes. The taxes include

• An increase of 1 percentage point of the sales tax in Cook County, bringing the county's take to 1.75 percent. In Chicago, the total sales tax of municipal, county and state sales taxes will be 10.25 percent.

• A doubling of the county parking tax. Althought the rates will vary slightly depending on parking plans, in general the tax will now be $2 per day. Exempted are Metra parking lots. The tax is expected to bring in $33 million a year.

A new health bureau administration

Part of the dealmaking Friday night included the creation of an independent governance board to operate the Bureau of Health. Nine board members will be picked by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger from 20 nominees. The Cook County Board must confirm Stroger's choices. The groups that will nominate the 20 candidates to run the new Cook County Bureau of Health Directors are:

1. The Civic Federation of Chicago

2. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago

3. The Chicago Urban League

4. The Healthcare Financial Management Association

5. The Suburban Primary Health Care Council

6. The Illinois Public Health Association

7. The Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council

8. The Health and Medicine Policy Research Group

9. The Chicago Department of Public Health

10. The Cook County Physicians Association

11. The Chicago Federation of Labor

12. The Chicago Medical Society

13. The Association of Community Safety Net Hospitals

14. The Midwest Latino Health Research Center

Friday, Suffredin was seen in his offices with union leaders, Stroger's staff and others, negotiating the sales tax, even as his Web site still displayed the message "I am opposed to the sales tax because it is regressive and adversely affects the poorest members of the community."

In exchange for Suffredin's vote, Stroger and other commissioners agreed to turn over control of the county's beleaguered bureau of health to an independent governance board.

The bureau has been under fire for years, faulted for being unable to even collect the patient fees it is owed. The hope is that by removing the bureau from the political governance that it will be run more efficiently.

Joining Suffredin in voting for the tax were William Beavers, Jerry Butler, Earlean Collins, John Daley, Joseph Moreno, Joan Murphy, Deborah Sims, and Robert Steele. Opposing the tax were Forrest Claypool, Liz Gorman, Gregg Goslin, Roberto Maldonado, Tony Peraica, Mike Quigley, Tim Schneider and Peter Silvestri.

"To get other things done to protect the poor … you have to make compromises," said Suffredin shortly after the deal was struck. "I think a sales tax is the exact wrong thing. … At the same time, you've got to put the votes together where you can."

But even with the spoonful of sugar of an independently governed hospital, many found the tax hike medicine difficult to swallow, especially in light of the fact that the budget deficit for 2007 was only $230 million, far less than the annual $459 million it would raise.

"We think it is unconscionable to raise the sales tax to the highest level of any major metropolitan area in the country," said Lawrence Msall of the Civic Federation.

In Chicago, the one percentage point sales tax hike raises the rate to 10.25 percent.

"To add another $450 million at a time when most citizens are having a hard enough time paying their own bills … is both frightening and disappointing," said Msall.

Proponents of the tax, like Cook County Commissioner Joan Murphy, pointed out that because the sales tax must be administered through the state, and can only be collected for the last two months of 2008, the county will only bring in roughly $71 million in additional funds this year. To cover the $230 million deficit, the county will have to borrow against the excess funds the $450 million generates in 2009.

Although the outline of the deal came to light as early as late afternoon, commissioners were still huddling in conference rooms late into the evening calculating the exact numbers and haggling over the structure of the health care governance board.

At issue were what groups would compose the 14-member nominating committee that would pick 15 governance board candidates. Republicans were chafing at the number of unions represented on the nominating committee and trying to get hospital governance groups like the Metropolitan Healthcare Council on the committee. They were successful.

The deal has the 14 groups nominate 20 candidates, from which Todd Stroger would pick nine board members for the health care governance board. Those nine, in turn would have to be confirmed by the Cook County board.

By law, commissioners had to pass the budget by midnight. At 11:55 p.m., someone stopped the clock in the boardroom, just as commissioners were furiously taking their final votes.

The finance committee completed its votes on the taxes and submitted its report to the full board just before midnight, and the full board approved the tax increase and budget exactly at midnight. However, procedural votes ratifying the amount in each county fund - such as the corporate fund and the health fund - were technically taken after midnight. The board wrapped up and adjourned at 12:10 a.m. The few minutes delay is unlikely to matter unless someone decides to sue.