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Cook County Board passes sales tax increase

The Cook County Board passed a sales tax increase Wednesday that will increase the total price of everything from underwear to soap by a penny for every dollar spent.

The total sales tax will rise to 10.25 percent — among the highest in the nation — when state and other taxing bodies’ portions are added in.

Residents of Cook County can expect to see the higher rate go into effect in January of 2016.

More than 30 members of the public addressed the board before the vote — some in favor of the increase, some not.

Craig Horowitz, owner of a Water Tower jewelry store, pulled out a sink faucet, imploring the board to “please say no to the public becoming a money faucet every time the government needs more money.”

Deno Andrews, owner of Felony Franks — a hot dog stand that employs felons and serves many customers from the Austin community, said he often works the cash register and sees firsthand that every cent counts.

“Our customers literally, this is no exaggeration, count pennies at our register, and I regularly hear complaints from our customers on how much the sales tax is,” he told the board.

Other business owners argued that customers would flee to collar counties or online retailers for savings.

Arguing in favor of the tax increase were several county employees and union leaders.

Cook County Board President Tony Preckwinkle was elected on her promise to roll back her predecessor’s increase in the sales tax.

But she said Wednesday that — in the face of a $6.5 billion unfunded pension liability crisis that grows by a million dollars every day, and with state lawmakers dragging their feet on passing pension fixes — the tax increase was an absolute necessity.

Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board, says she has the votes for a sales-tax hike. | Saiyna Bashir | Sun-Times

Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board, says she has the votes for a sales-tax hike. | Saiyna Bashir | Sun-Times

Preckwinkle expects the tax to raise $473 million in 2016. She has said about 90 percent of the proceeds would go into the county pension fund. The rest would be spent on roads and infrastructure projects and used to pay down debt.

Preckwinkle, who called the crisis a “pension tsunami,” said after the vote that it “would be irresponsible for us to continue to accrue these substantial liabilities without working hard on behalf of the taxpayers and the people of Cook County.”

The vote passed with nine yes votes, seven no votes and one present.

Yes votes came from commissioners Joan Patricia Murphy, Robert Steele, Jerry “Iceman” Butler, Deborah Sims, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Luis Arroyo Jr., John Daley, Stanley Moore, and Jeffrey Tobolski.

No votes came from  John Fritchey, Larry Suffredin, Richard Boykin, Peter Silvestri, Gregg Goslin, Bridget Gainer and Timothy Schneider.

Several members of the opposition offered amendments regarding the tax.

Suffredin wants one ensuring tax proceeds go toward pension funds.

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Commissioners Suffredin and Schneider both expressed concern that they were being asked to simply trust that new tax proceeds would go into the pension fund without any guarantees.

Fritchey wants a “sunset” clause to the sales tax that would automatically revoke the new tax after two years.

Preckwinkle has said — should pension reform legislation pass in Springfield — she would consider scaling back the increased sales tax later this year.

However, any changes to pension law would inevitably face a court battle.

Preckwinkle has often said “there’s no person in Cook County more hesitant to increase the sales tax than me” and reiterated those words Wednesday.

She ousted previous Board President Todd Stroger in 2010 by promising to roll back his sales tax increase — the exact same increase she re-enacted Wednesday.

Preckwinkle touted reforms she’s made that have streamlined county operations and saved millions. She said she plans to cut another $100 million in expenditures.

“I understand this was not an easy vote,” she said Wednesday. “It was not frankly an easy proposal for me to move forward. But I feel strongly that leaders are elected to lead. And that in this case we had to step in and make the tough decisions for the future of cook county.”

Nearly every commissioner took time to explain his or her decision.

“I certainly will not deny anyone the right to a retirement,” said Tobolski who voted in favor of the increase. “This is all about shared sacrifice.”

Boykin railed on the sales tax. “This is shameful . . . Increasing sales tax on the poorest of the poor,” he said. “It is the wrong thing.”

After offering up some fuzzy math calculations, which were quickly corrected by one of her colleagues, Murphy said the tax won’t affect the poor as much because they spend less. “It’s a penny,” she said.

State law excludes the application of sales tax to certain items such as groceries and medicine.