"The right thing to do" | Bleader

"The right thing to do"

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Not that most of us believed otherwise, but it's become pretty clear over the last couple of days that no one’s happy about Cook County’s new sales tax increase.

On the one hand, it’s only 1 percent. This is a tax hike that can in most cases be paid for out of the "Give a penny, take a penny" bin next to the register at the 7-Eleven.

On the other, the economy is already under stress, and Crain’s reported today that a ratings firm has lowered its assessment of the county government’s financial status from "stable" to "negative."

What really seems to irk most people is where the money’s going: straight into the coffers of the county government of president Todd Stroger, whose name, fairly or not, has come to mean something like "wasteful, bumbling, and incompetent." For example: "the Stroger tax hikes," "the Stroger administration," "It’s really Stroger to keep the water running when you’re brushing your teeth."

Still, the Cook County commissioner who in March cast the deciding vote to approve the sales tax stood by his decision again Wednesday afternoon.

"It was the right thing to do, and in the long run it will save hundreds of millions of dollars for the taxpayers of Cook County," says Larry Suffredin, who’s based in Evanston.

The savings Suffredin predicts would actually come from a reduction in waste in the Bureau of Health Services. Suffredin backed the tax increase in return for the creation of an independent body to oversee the bureau, which accounts for about $1 billion of the county’s $3 billion budget.

Suffredin said that the county’s financial rating drop was troubling but unconnected to the sales tax hike—he said he’s been hearing predictions that it would happen for months. He also wanted to point out that while Chicago’s 10.25 percent sales tax rate is the highest in the nation, he'd only voted for a small share of it. "What was out there already was voted on by a lot of other elected officials before this," he says.

"Not everyone agrees with my decision, but the purpose of my vote was, number one, to help stabilize the government so it’s not some embarrassment like the state has become, and number two to change the course of the one-third of the government that the health bureau makes up," he says. "You can’t continue to run it on millions of dollars in deficits, and you can’t turn away from all those people who need health care."

The oversight panel—a mix of physicians, hospital administrators, and labor and corporate leaders—is promising, Suffredin says, though not perfect: "There’s one place it’s weak—it doesn’t have a professional finance person. But we’ll see how this is going to work.”

Ideally, he says, the board president should also be stripped of the power to appoint the public defender, but Suffredin doesn’t sound like he's itching for another fight.

"The county board is not a fun place to be," he says. "We had a forest preserve meeting earlier today at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I got to ride my bike up there. The best part of my job is being a forest preserve commissioner—this time of year they’re so green and beautiful. But when you get to the county side, it is still disheartening to read a story every day about something going wrong."

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