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Preckwinkle unveils Cook County budget as soda tax repeal vote looms

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the board of commissioners on Wednesday will plunge into two driving issues in the race for governor: taxes and toilets. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presented her budget proposal to commissioners Thursday and defended her fiscal record amid an effort to repeal a controversial tax on sweetened beverages.

A public hearing on dumping that penny-an-ounce tax is next week, but Preckwinkle, who acted as “advocate-in-chief” for the tax and county residents, told commissioners a vote to repeal isn’t just about losing revenue; it is, she said, a compromise of “our constitutional duty” to keep the county on solid financial footing.

“In front of us are two diverging paths,” Preckwinkle said. “One, the path of my budget recommendation, includes revenue we authorized last year. The other, an alternative path, takes us in a vastly different direction.”

SWITCH: Commissioner John Daley changes position, says he will vote to repeal soda tax

That new direction would put the county on a course with fewer public health and safety workers — since a majority of the budget goes to those sectors. Without the revenue the soda tax brings in, “meeting our fiscal obligations could mean cutting programs or services we know are in the best interest of people in Cook County,” she said.

“We should all be proud of the progress we are making in turning the county into a more effective government,” Preckwinkle said, adding that repeal could mean the county goes backward, and that advances made in public health and safety could be wiped away.

People from the Can the Tax Coalition, or those generally in support of the effort to roll back the tax, disputed that, citing their declining sales as proof that their businesses were going backward and, if the tax wasn’t repealed, they would disappear.

“In recent years we’ve seen a marked increase in our food costs,” said John Meyer, owner of Bj’s Market & Bakery. “It’s my hope that the board will understand the difficulties of owning and operating a small business and seek alternatives to the additional taxes.”

In a statement, the coalition, funded in part by the American Beverage Association, said more of the same: “Cook County will not solve its budget problems with a beverage tax that is unstable, lacks transparency and is causing significant harm to working families and businesses in the county.”

Those opposing a rollback said the tax is needed to help people make smarter, healthier choices.

“Imagine teaching a nine-year-old patient how to test themselves for diabetes or telling a patient that they’re going to be on dialysis,” Sheila Garland, of National Nurses United, said. “A lot of this argument has nothing to do with whether or not this is a good tax or not. This is about your responsibility to the mission of the hospitals to care for the patients who need it most.”

Faye Porter, 63, a retired state worker from the Bronzeville neighborhood, attended a rally in June to support the Can the Tax coalition. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

On Wednesday, Preckwinkle refused to say how she thought next week’s vote would go, but did say that without the estimated revenue that the penny-an-ounce tax would bring in there would be “significant cuts to public health and public safety, because that’s where 87 percent of our money goes.”

Similar cuts were promised earlier in the summer, when a back-and-forth court battle between the county and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association stalled the implementation of the tax. Pink slips went out in July due to the stall, but were walked back when a circuit court judge OK’d the tax, allowing the revenue to pour in.

With a new effort to curtail the tax, county workers may face a similar predicament. Preckwinkle said in her speech that her commitment to passing a balanced budget remains “unwavering.” But Preckwinkle’s speech also took shots at commissioners who have criticized her in the past and at “dysfunction” in Springfield, which she says “creates budget holes we need to fill.”

Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki said as of last week the county has gotten around $16 million in revenue from the tax in its first month, though receipts are still trickling in. A full presentation of revenue from the tax wouldn’t be available until November’s board meeting, he said.

Eliminating the revenue from that tax “could result in the closure of community health centers — potentially in areas where we will no longer be able to provide services because we planned on closing current facilities to open larger, more modern ones to accommodate demand,” Preckwinkle’s speech said in part.

During a press conference after the meeting, Preckwinkle said the push-back was “unexpected.”

“I’ve made it quite clear what my path is, and that is to have revenue to keep our health and public safety programs functioning to serve the people of Cook County,” Preckwinkle said.

Contributing: Andy Grimm