Taxpayer Revolt, Rebel Commissioners Stave Off Cook County Tax Hikes

Published March 1, 2008

Complaints from thousands of angry taxpayers and infighting among county commissioners have held off nearly $890 million of proposed tax and fee hikes in Cook County, Illinois.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger (D), who leads the nation’s third-largest county government, had proposed raising revenues by $888 million.

Taxpayers flooded the county commissioners with phone calls, emails, and letters of protest, apparently to good effect.

No Support

“Elected officials, believe me, this is no bluff. There is no support whatsoever for new taxes,” said County Finance Committee Chairman John Daley (D), brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, during a committee meeting in late December. “This is not a game.”

Nonetheless, a “tsunami of tax increase proposals,” in the words of Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, remains a possibility. The Civic Federation is a Chicago-based government watchdog organization.

Msall is correct, according to Forrest Claypool (D), one of at least seven county commissioners (of 17 total) who have indicated opposition to any tax or fee hikes.

No Compromise

“It’s premature to sound the death knell for tax hikes, because a majority of the board is in support of tax hikes,” Claypool said. “It’s that they can’t agree on what taxes to raise–sales taxes, hotel taxes, telephone taxes, other taxes. February 28 is the deadline for our budget, so there may be compromise as we near that deadline. So far no one wants to compromise.”

Claypool said public pressure against any tax or fee increases “has been intense.”

“Taxpayers are seeing a dramatic rise in taxes and a decline in government competence at all levels, whether you’re talking public schools, roads and bridges, or health care,” Claypool said. “Cook County government is probably the most incompetent and dysfunctional of all.”

Corruption Tax

But it’s not just incompetence that has taxpayers crying “enough,” Claypool says. He also believes “the constant backdrop of news stories about government corruption and waste here in the county and in Chicago and Springfield [the state capital] has shown people they really are paying corruption and dysfunction taxes.”

Dozens of former Chicago city workers and close associates of the Daley administration have been convicted of crimes in recent years. Illinois’ immediate past governor and scores of his associates have been convicted of federal crimes, and current Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), his wife, and associates of theirs are the apparent targets of several federal criminal probes.

Some Blagojevich administration officials have been convicted of crimes related to their involvement with state government.

“I think people are realizing that paying more taxes is simply enabling decrepit and dysfunctional government,” Claypool said.

Stroger and his allies contend huge tax and fee hikes are needed to keep government services running. Stroger also argues taking a big chunk of new revenue now will forestall the need for numerous smaller tax hikes in the future.

Minimum Level

Stroger’s office recently issued a response to criticisms that have rained down upon county leadership.

It states in part, “departments were asked to justify every expenditure as well as to provide a three-year expenditure forecast that included agreed-upon union contract salary increases and non-personnel costs based on the industry rate of inflation.”

That statement was followed a few days later by an embarrassing incident on Chicago’s WGN Radio, one of the largest radio stations in the Midwest. In an apparent act of desperation to defend his boss, Stroger’s $100,000-a-year communications director called the station during a Stroger appearance and went on the air pretending to be a sympathizer who identified himself as “Jonathan from Chicago.”

“Jonathan” was actually Andrew Garner, Stroger’s paid spokesman. One day later Garner was back on WGN Radio, where he apologized for “a terrible lapse in judgment” and said Stroger did not know he would call in.

Corruption Fight

Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica (R) is less than impressed with Stroger’s budgeting. He has repeatedly butted heads with the board president and Stroger’s father, who resigned from the board presidency in 2006 after suffering a stroke and installing his son to take his place.

“The best way to fight tax increases is by fighting the corruption that drains tens of millions of dollars from the county budget,” said Peraica. He is running for Cook County State’s Attorney and pledges to fight corruption if elected.

Peraica has long complained of illegal patronage hiring, rigged contracts, and other waste and corruption in Cook County. In an effort to expose those problems, his campaign Web site includes links for citizens to find information on county vendors and a list of Cook County government workers.

‘Totally Confrontational’

“Stroger is totally confrontational,” said Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley (D).

“My job is to make the budget better,” Quigley said. “They’re not listening to me or Forrest [Claypool] or any of us who are trying to improve the budget. They had all kinds of time. They could have streamlined the budget, made things more efficient.

“Instead,” Quigley continued, “we come back from the holidays and they send out a letter saying, ‘Blame these guys.’ Their answer is still, ‘Give us another 2 percentage points on the sales tax.'” Cook County’s sales tax is now 0.75 percent. Stroger has proposed more than tripling the tax to 2.75 percent to raise $750 million a year. The total state and local sales tax would climb to 11 percent in Chicago, Cook County’s largest city. “I’m going to try to promote positive change,” Quigley said. “If we can make a positive change without a tax hike, I’m all for it.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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