Preckwinkle on county sales-tax hike: ‘It is what we had to do’By Kevin Beese For Chronicle Media — January 22, 2016
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is hoping for less turbulent times in 2016.
Reinstatement of the county sales tax hike that she campaigned against and pushing for a county hotel tax were just two revenue issues Preckwinkle took flak for in 2015.
“It was a really tough year,” she said.
While her financial team is already working on the fiscal year 2016-17 budget, Preckwinkle said in an interview with the Cook County Chronicle that, at this time, she can’t rule out tapping into other revenue sources to balance next year’s budget.
She said she stands by reinstatement of the 1 percent sales tax increase that was instituted by her predecessor Todd Stroger and help her defeat Stroger when she campaigned against it.
“We are responsible, good stewards with county taxpayers’ money,” Preckwinkle said. “We had to decide how to pay our bills. We had two choices, more property taxes or increase the sales tax. There was not one vote for increasing property taxes … It was very difficult for me to move forward with the sales-tax increase, but we clearly needed additional revenue to address the long-term finances of the county. We have half the people of (Los Angeles) County and twice the debt. The sales-tax money will go toward pensions. I did what I did because it is what we had to do.”
She said with no action coming from Springfield, something had to be done to address the county’s growing pension liabilities.
“We are accruing additional pension liabilities of $1 million a day,” Preckwinkle said. “It is like having a credit card and letting the interest continue to accrue.”
When a proposed county tax on cable TV to help balance the budget came under fire because of the negative impact on seniors — with many using cable airwaves to communicate with family — the focus turned to a 1 percent tax on hotel stays within Cook County.
“We raised the cost $1 for a night’s stay and $3 or $4 (for a night’s stay) at a luxury hotel,” Preckwinkle said. “I think it is a modest tax.”
The County Board president said the budget team is already working on the next budget and says right now there are no guarantees the county will stop short on needing additional fees or taxes.
“It is hard to know where we will be in June (when the current fiscal year ends),” Preckwinkle said. “We can’t rule out revenue increases to balance the budget.”
Asked whether a property-tax increase could be back on the table, Preckwinkle said, “County commissioners are very reluctant to raise property taxes.”
When the county Forest Preserve Board, in December, held the line on its budget for the second year in a row, Commissioner Larry Suffredin warned that alternative revenue would need to be found to help balance future budgets.
Preckwinkle said the county is examining naming opportunities on Forest Preserve facilities as well as taking steps to maximize concession sales.
“We are looking for the Forest Preserve Foundation to ratchet up more philanthropic support and there are outsourcing opportunities,” Preckwinkle said. “We knew we going two years with no increase in revenue.”
Preckwinkle said she is excited about a long-range transportation plan, which takes a multi-prong look at transportation and economic development, being unveiled this spring.
“It is the first time we have undertaken this kind of initiative in 70 years,” Preckwinkle said. “It is long overdue. The 1940 plan was prophetic regarding vehicle transportation.”
She said she wants to see the number of individuals accused of a crime and being held in county custody awaiting disposition of the case continue to be reduced.
“The jail population was below 8,000 (in 2015) for the first time since 1990,” Preckwinkle said.
She noted the county’s Health and Hospitals System now has a community triage center in place to address issue with individuals prior to them entering the criminal justice system rather than after. Preckwinkle said that between one-quarter and one-third of individuals entering the criminal justice system have mental illnesses
The board president said work will continue this year on the county’s public health campus with the core medical facilities completed by 2018
Preckwinkle has thrown her support behind her former chief of staff Kim Foxx who is running for state’s attorney in the March primary. The board president said incumbent Anita Alvarez has not gotten the job done.
“I have been dissatisfied with the state’s attorney for a long time,” Preckwinkle said. “… It was clear to me she was not the right person long before I knew Kim Foxx was running.
The County Board’s Criminal Justice Committee is expected to make an appeal to Alvarez to appear before the committee to answer questions about how cases involving police are determined. The County Board does not have subpoena powers and cannot force the independently elected official to appear before the panel, although it does annually approve the budget for the state’s attorney’s office.
“I believe she is accountable to the County Board and should appear before the committee,” Preckwinkle said, “but I sincerely doubt that she will.”
The County Board president said the public can, at times, be quick to dismiss work she does because they don’t agree with the move.
“I have worked hard for five years,” Preckwinkle said. “I want to let people know I have worked hard on their behalf. I have tried to be a responsible steward with their money. I feel blessed to have accomplished the things I have.”
— Preckwinkle on county sales-tax hike: ‘It is what we had to do’ —