Cook County cuts 300 employees due to soda tax suit

By Jean Lotus Staff Reporter


Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announces the soda tax in 2016. (Chronicle Media)

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced July 14 that her office had laid off 300 employees and more firings may be looming because of a lawsuit blocking the county’s “soda tax” on sweetened drinks. Preckwinkle said the county was also closing 600 vacant positions.

“The personnel actions are necessary to address an approximately $68 million gap in our FY2017 that is directly related to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association’s lawsuit and Temporary Restraining Order that prohibits us from collecting the Sweetened Beverage Tax,” Preckwinkle wrote in a press statement.

But some commissioners who voted against the soda tax said Preckwinkle was using the cuts as payback.

“I think it’s all a scare tactic,” First Dist. Commissioner Richard Boykin, who opposed the tax, told a television station. “It’s aimed at the judiciary and aimed at political retribution for individuals who didn’t support the sweetened beverage tax.”

Agencies within the county were ordered to trim department expenses by 10 percent across the board.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office issued a memo that the department had been asked to lay off 925 employees, including 377 Department of Corrections employees, 212 sheriff’s police employees and 173 employees in Court Services. The proposed layoffs amounted to “approximately 17 percent of our workforce,” the memo said.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans issued a letter last week saying 500 employees of the Circuit Court would be considered for pink slips. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she had been asked to trim $4 million from her budget, which would lay off more than 100 prosecutors and some support staff.

“I regret that these actions are necessary — and I deeply regret the impact they have on individual employees,” Preckwinkle said in her statement. “One of the main reasons I proposed the modest tax on sweetened beverages last year was specifically to avoid these kind[s] of cuts.”

The IRMA filed a lawsuit over the penny-per-ounce tax shortly before it was to go into effect July 1. The suit said the new law violated the uniformity clause of the Illinois Constitution. A circuit court judge and then an appellate court judge upheld a temporary restraining order blocking collection of the tax.

Preckwinkle initially said the sweetened beverage tax would go to pension obligations, but she said cuts needed to be made in all departments. Next year’s budget gap would be more than $212 million without the soda tax.

The lawsuit was “likely to be a protracted legal fight,” Preckwinkle said. “And while we believe we will ultimately prevail, we must take fiscally responsible actions now.”



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