CHICAGO – The budget debate is expected to heat up this week as the Cook County, Ill., board faces an unofficial Nov. 30 deadline to vote on President Todd Stroger’s $3.2 billion 2008 budget, which is balanced largely with a controversial 2% sales tax increase. The board will hear proposed amendments to the budget Tuesday and possibly hold a vote on the overall spending plan Friday, ahead of the start of the county’s new fiscal year Dec. 1. However, under state law, the county is not formally required to have a new budget in place until the end of February.Stroger’s proposed budget closes an estimated $241 million deficit by raising Cook’s portion of the sales tax to 2.75% from 0.75%, a measure that would put Chicago’s sales tax at 11%, among the highest in the nation. Stroger has already twice postponed calling a vote on the controversial measure because it lacked sufficient support among the commissioners to pass.“Stroger still doesn’t have the votes to pass the sales tax, I promise you that,” said Commissioner Mike Quigley after a board meeting last week. “The president doesn’t have a Plan B yet. He has to figure out how he’s going to raise additional revenue.”Stroger has also proposed doubling the gasoline tax to 12 cents from six cents on the dollar and doubling the county’s daily, weekly, and monthly parking tax rates.As an alternative to the sales tax hike, Commissioner Roberto Maldonado last week introduced a package of five new tax increases. The measures include expanding the existing gas tax of six cents on the gallon to include jet, train, and boat fuel; a 1% hotel tax; a 1.5% tax on alcohol consumed at taverns and restaurants; raising the use tax to 1% on big-ticket items like boats and cars; and raising the motor vehicle weight tax. Maldonado estimates the tax package would raise around $126 million annually. “Although this doesn’t come up with the full $241 million, it’s about half and therefore might give the commissioners something that they don’t have,” he said. “This is an alternative to the approach of across-the-board taxes that affect everybody regardless of their ability to pay.”Maldonado added that commissioners have shown interest in the proposals, but he is uncertain of final support. “Interest does not translate into votes,” he said. The final budget debate comes a week after the county board’s finance committee released a revenue report for the 11 months ending Oct. 31, 2007, which showed an unexpected $42 million revenue loss that stems largely from a deep shortfall in patient collections at its health care facilities. It’s unclear how that figure will impact the overall deficit going into the new budget cycle.The report shows a $76.2 million shortfall in patient fee revenue as well as a $6.2 million shortfall from the Recorder of Deeds — a shortfall that would increase to between $9 to $10 million by the end of the year due to a declining local real estate market. The total shortfall of $84.3 million is offset by a $42.5 million increase in other revenues, including a $10.8 million increase in cigarette tax revenue and nearly $5 million increase in Cook County’s gas, alcohol and amusement taxes combined.
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