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Public Weighs In On Next Year’s Cook County Budget

Cook County Seal

(Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Businesspeople, county employees and the public lined up Thursday night for the chance to voice opinions on next year’s Cook County budget.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports, the mid-year hearing was a first. Until this year, budget hearings were slated only after the document has been published.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports

Businesspeople and those representing unionized county employees came to the meeting with very different agendas.

A 0.25 percent cut in the sales tax is supposed to take effect on Jan. 1, 2012. If enacted as scheduled,it would mean the elimination of 75 percent of the sales tax increase imposed in 2008 by former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s administration. But keeping it would erase more than $50 million of the county’s projected $315 million shortfall.

Shoe store owner Peter Hanig, who owns several Hanig’s footwear stores in the city and suburbs, told County Board members that is increasingly difficult to compete against online sellers who don’t charge sales tax.

“On my way to this meeting, I counted 25 empty stores on Clark Street between Diversey and Armitage,” he said. “I believe that our extremely high sales taxes contributed to the closing of those stores, and I don’t believe that this is good economic development policy.”

But representatives of the Teamsters and Service Employees unions, who bargain for county employees, said cutting the county healthcare budget to shrink the shortfall will endanger lives and said workers who have taken furlough days and have given up pay hikes now deserve one. But Stroger Hospital’s Dr. David Schwartz said further spending cuts at county-run health facilities will endanger lives.

“Further cuts will make any pretense of our providing a meaningful safety net untenable,” he said.

Still other speakers suggested switching power providers to reduce the county’s electric bill by more than 20 percent and making county employees pay for their own benefits.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said ideas proposed by speakers at Thursday night’s hearing would be given consideration.

State law requires the county to pass a balanced budget by the end of February each year.