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County Board to take on taxes, toilets at Wednesday meeting

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

The Cook County Board of Commissioners will plunge into two driving issues in the race for governor: taxes and toilets.

The repeal of an amendment to the parking lot and garage operations tax, which will come before the board Wednesday, would erase a 1.75 percent tax on “booking intermediaries,” like SpotHero or ParkWhiz, according to the ordinance. It passed in October, sponsored by a number of outgoing commissioners, and is slated to go into effect Jan. 1, 2019.

The repeal of the October amendment would up the tax to its original 6 percent.

“The board shouldn’t second-guess itself,” SpotHero spokeswoman Natalie Bauer Luce said. “Commissioners need to vote against yet another tax increase in Cook County and demonstrate that they can craft and maintain rules for emerging business models that fit them and are fair.”

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, is leading the repeal effort that is supported by President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also running for mayor.

Suffredin says the amendment unfairly favored SpotHero. It also isn’t a tax increase because the amendment hasn’t yet gone into effect and repealing it would be a boon for the county, Suffredin said.

A fiscal note provided to the Sun-Times shows a repeal would benefit the county. The note, which was sent to Preckwinkle and the board of commissioners, shows a gain of $725,000 in revenue and savings of $120,000 in 2019 if the repeal goes through. By 2023, that revenue gain would amount to $986,354 for the county.

Nick Shields, a spokesman for Preckwinkle, said the board-approved amendment was opposed by the administration when it came up for a vote in October. He also said the repeal of the amendment wouldn’t mean a new tax on county residents.

“Wednesday’s repeal vote would simply return Cook County to the previous tax ordinance that was the basis for the president’s original executive budget recommendation,” Shields said in a statement. “As a reminder, this isn’t a new tax. This would be a continuation of the current tax ordinance. This budget was balanced without the need for new taxes, fines or fees.”

Preckwinkle’s office also received a legal opinion after the board vote from the state’s attorney’s office that concluded that “this amendment could make Cook County vulnerable to several legal challenges and that it is unenforceable and vague, a violation of the Uniformity clause, and constitutes an unconstitutional occupation tax,” Shields said in a statement.

Commissioner Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park, said he hoped the repeal effort wasn’t “an omen for what county residents can expect for the next four years” and worried the tax would be passed on to county residents who use the apps.

“It’s an odd move politically,” Morrison said. “It’s surprising that [Preckwinkle’s administration] is right back on this immediately.”

The county will also seek to plug any leaks of confidential summary reports that come from the county’s Office of the Independent Inspector General.

The amendment to the ordinance governing the inspector general’s office will make it so that anyone who releases confidential summary reports — such as the one detailing Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker removing toilets from the mansion next door to his Gold Coast home that the Sun-Times reported on in October   — could face fines and jail time.

The county’s top watchdog, Pat Blanchard, said his office had never experienced a leak of that nature before the release of the Pritzker report.

The summaries go to the county president, the appropriate head of any department or bureau involved in the investigation, the chief of the Bureau of Human Resources and — in cases that involve an applicant for a contract, subcontractor or contractor — to the purchasing agent involved.

Anyone who leaks summary reports may now “be subject to a penalty of up to six months imprisonment and fines up to $5,000.00 per violation” — a “hefty” penalty, according to Blanchard.

Suffredin is also leading the charge on the changes to the inspector general’s ordinance, which was introduced last year. He says it “undermines the ability” of the inspector general to do deep-dive investigations if the preliminary findings are immediately made public.

Blanchard said the amendment won’t affect the way his office does business.

“The balance that our office is always kind of engaged in is protecting the confidentiality of witnesses and sources, but transparency is also an issue,” Blanchard said. “What this will do is make clear to recipients and secondary recipients of reports that they can’t release them for political purpose.”