11th hour deal could avert county shutdown

February 29, 2008 10:14:11 PM PST
As a midnight deadline passed it appeared as though Cook County commissioners had worked out a deal to avoid a government shutdown. Marathon negotiations continued to hammer out the details. One result of the deal -- it is likely there will be a higher sales tax in Cook County.

The key words are "it appeared." ABC7 News was told that the deal almost fell apart several times Friday night. Commissioners worked past the midnight deadline.

The deal that they apparently worked out would increase the sales tax in Cook County by 1-percent and would also create a hospital governing board.

"We are in the process of trying to adopt a budget. Now, you might not like it, but it's your jobs. We stand in recess," said commissioner John Daley.

Groans from the county employees who are gathered waiting for word of an end to the budget stalemate. But if there is a deal, it will be hammered out behind closed doors. After the negotiations for months, it has come down to the wire with the county government shutdown hanging in the balance.

"We've never gone down to the point where we get served with summons like we did today. And we appear in front of a judge tomorrow if we don't get it done tonight. That's a little bit of pressure," said commissioner Mike Quigley.

Friday afternoon the Chief Judge Tim Evans issued an order that would keep essential services including the jail, the courts and the hospital, operating, in the event commissioners failed to pass a budget before midnight. Everything else would be shut down.

"We want to assure the citizens of this community that they can still bring their disputes to court, that they are not to resort to dealing with their disputes in the street," Judge Evans said.

The deal under discussion would increase the county's sales tax by 1-percent. And establish a hospital governing board that would essentially take direct control of Cook County hospital out of the board president's Todd Stroger's hands. It's a compromise in order to gain one more swing vote in favor of increased taxes. Opponents, though, believe it's a mistake.

"The people of my district should not have to make sacrifices because this county board isn't willing to," said commissioner Tim Schneider.

"I think that we're pricing ourselves out of the marketplace. This is going to cause a lot of companies to leave the county of Cook and a lot of jobs will be leaving with them and I think we're killing the golden goose here," said commissioner Tony Peraica.

Opponents of the tax increase say they would be happy if they were unable to reach a deal because that could mean the tax increase is dead and they would be happy to come back Saturday and work on budget cuts.

Statement regarding Cook County budget From Jerry Roper, President and CEO, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce


"Even before this vote, the people and businesses in the Chicago region were shouldering more than $800 million in new taxes this year, and now will pay millions more to support an incredibly inefficient County government," said Jerry Roper. "Chicago now has the unfortunate notoriety of having the highest sales tax in the country, and our region will now be a more expensive place to visit, live, work and operate a business. This impacts our jobs climate and makes our region more expensive and less competitive as our country lies on the brink of recession."

"There was a true opportunity this year to build on the reforms initiated last year. Cook County officials squandered this opportunity, and instead will be adding hundreds of new employees to the county payroll. The people of our region should be outraged," Roper added.

Top National Sales Tax Rates:

Chicago 10.25% (includes 1% Cook County increase)

Memphis 9.25%

New Orleans 9.0%

New York City 8.375%

Los Angeles 8.25%


Overview of Tax Increases in the Chicago region:

November 2007: City of Chicago tax/fee increases - $270 million

January 2008: CTA/RTA .25% Sales and Real Estate Transfer Tax increases
- $530 million

February 2008: Cook County 1% Sales Tax increase - $425 million

Dramatic showdown

Friday afternoon a group of county officials filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court asking a judge to intervene in the ongoing budget dispute.

Board President Todd Stroger, State's Attorney Dick Devine and Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart filed the lawsuit anticipating difficulty finding a judge Saturday, if the board does not resolve the budget issue by the deadline. They asked a judge to order emergency services to remain open.

"Right now, we have a situation where it's more about personality than it is about the county," said Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

President Stroger, who does not have a vote on the budget, said the four Democratic holdouts are more concerned about politics, including what offices they might run for in the future and personal dislike for him.

"This is like kindergarten. Take your personalities out. I'll take mine out," Stroger said.

Only one of the anti-tax Democrats is needed to break the stalemate. They include self-styled reformers Forrest Claypool, Mike Quigley and Larry Suffredin, joined by Roberto Maldonado. While some of the four have offered lesser sales tax increases, all oppose Stroger's recommended 1.25 percent.

"If you want a legislative body that does nothing but agree, I think you're going to have higher taxes," said Commissioner Mike Quigley.

But none of the four will agree to spending reductions, especially at county hospitals and clinics, that become necessary without the tax increase.

Republican Tim Schneider, who supports spending cuts, cannot understand.

"We have a group of reform commissioners who, at this point, want to have it both ways. They don't want to vote for taxes, but they don't want to make the cuts necessary to balance this budget," he said.

Stroger's lawyers had already drafted the lawsuit earlier Friday to ask the courts to intervene should the board stalemate continue past midnight. The lawsuit asks that the 17 commissioners literally be locked in their chambers until they resolve their differences.

" They will say you have to pass a budget. That's the responsibility of this board," said Commissioner John Daley.

Finance Committee Chairman Daley suddenly canceled a 3:30 p.m. meeting of his committee Friday to again have more budget discussions. He set that meeting back until 6 p.m., when the county board was set to meet again to try to settle the budget impasse that could lead to a county government shut down at midnight.