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Preckwinkle sours when told pop tax repeal cuts could bottle up tax bills

Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Every boss has his or her own unique leadership style.

We know Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle tends to stick closely to her principles. And she will not hesitate to sternly lecture those who disagree.

She provided yet another vivid example of this authoritative approach to management, sources say, just a few days ago, right before she became the new boss of the county Democratic Party.

In a closed-door meeting at the County Building Tuesday, Preckwinkle turned prickly when officials from the county’s Board of Review told her staff cuts by her administration made it impossible to do their jobs on time.

ANALYSIS

The three elected Board of Review commissioners concede they’re more than a month behind schedule for ruling on the record-large batch of property tax appeals before them now.

That’s setting off a chain reaction. If the tax bills go out late, it will push back the due dates to pay property taxes. And taxpayer-supported government agencies and school districts across the county could find themselves short of the money they need to operate.

Sources say the news from the Board of Review deeply irked Preckwinkle — and her reaction also showed her lingering resentment over last year’s soda-tax defeat.

“Were you for revenue?” Preckwinkle shot back at Republican Board of Review Commissioner Dan Patlak, according to the sources.

“Revenue” is Preckwinkle’s way of referring to her hugely unpopular, short-lived tax on pop and other sweetened beverages.

Republican Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Dan Patlak. File Photo| Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Preckwinkle administration had counted on the soda tax to generate revenues of about $200 million a year for the cash-starved county government. But the public backlash prompted the County Board to repeal the tax ahead of this year’s elections.

Preckwinkle defended the tax to the end, warning its repeal would translate into layoffs in county government that would drastically affect services.

It’s certainly been the case at the Board of Review, the agency where landowners have filed nearly 230,000 appeals of their property-tax assessments this year.

The Board of Review has 105 employees to help deal with that record flow of appeals, down from 125 last year, according to the agency’s spokesman, Jim Thompson.

He provided a series of letters to county leaders dating back as far back as October, when the Board of Review commissioners initially warned the cutbacks would cause delays.

“We are disappointed our repeated warning were ignored,” Thompson says, decrying “draconian staffing reductions.”

The Board of Reviews estimates that tardy tax bills will cost millions of dollars “in lost interest” for local taxing bodies.

“When Cook County is delayed in collecting tax revenues for schools, libraries and municipalities, it hurts every resident of Cook County,” Thompson says.

Patlak confirmed that he opposed was to the soda tax but declined to comment on his confrontation with Preckwinkle at Tuesday’s meeting, referring questions about the matter to Thompson.

Thompson says he’s speaking on behalf of Patlak and the two other Board of Review commissioners, Democrats Larry Rogers Jr. and Michael Cabonargi.

Characteristically, Preckwinkle offers no apologies.

In a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times, Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan said Preckwinkle made it “abundantly clear” to the Board of Review commissioners and the County Board members that the soda-tax repeal would lead to layoffs unless other revenue sources were created.

“That such reductions have ultimately been implemented should be no surprise to anyone,” he said.

Preckwinkle made history Wednesday when she became the first African-American and first woman to lead the Cook County Democrats. She deservedly expressed her pride in that political accomplishment.

In government leadership roles, though, exercising power can be bittersweet when money is as tight as it is these days.