CHICAGO - Cook County President Todd Stroger yesterday defended the recent tax increase that boosted Chicago's sales tax to the highest in the nation, saying it allowed the county to escape the kind of financial troubles afflicting local governments across the U.S.
Stroger also stood by his plan to issue $740 million of new-money general obligation bonds to pay for an array of capital projects, as the borrowing is expected to come under fire from some county commissioners next week.
Speaking at a City Club of Chicago luncheon yesterday to Chicago and Cook County's political and business community, Stroger attacked his critics and local media and defended his administration's fiscal and hiring policies, particularly the controversial sales tax increase.
"Because of the hard choice I made, despite massive challenges, Cook County stands today on financially solid ground," he said.
But Stroger also warned that the county faces an ongoing structural deficit as revenues shrink and expenses rise: "The reality is, Cook County faces a structural deficit just like counties and governments across the country."
The county's growing structural deficit is estimated to hit $288 million this year and reach $1.5 billion within the next 10 years without additional revenue.
Cook implemented a 1% sales tax hike in July, raising the county's portion of the regional sales tax to 1.75% and pushing the total tax to 10.25%, the highest in the nation. At the time, the administration estimated the tax would raise an additional $450 million annually, but yesterday Stroger predicted the number would be lower given the weak economy.
"The finance people are still working on those numbers. The revenue will be down, but will be enough to cover the increases in the budget," he said.
Stroger also defended the county's plan to issue up to $740 million of new-money bonds within the next month. The 17-member county board in mid-September approved a measure authorizing the county to issue the new-money debt while restructuring up to $3.1 billion of outstanding debt. The measure passed only after commissioners stripped the administration of some of its borrowing powers, and required board approval on all finance teams selected for any bond deals.
Stroger's defense of the bond package comes as the administration plans to return to the board next week for approval of the finance teams. The measure is expected to attract criticism from a group of commissioners who also opposed borrowing just months after the new sales tax took effect.
"The newspapers are railing against our [general] obligation bonds that will pay for capital expenses," Stroger said. "This has been going on since the 1990s. If [commissioners] decide to change that, [it'll] put a tremendous hole in our revenues."
The administration is currently crafting the 2009 budget and expects to introduce it to the full board by late November.
Finally, Stroger attacked those who accuse him of a "friends and family" hiring plan for top county positions, especially the hiring of his cousin, Donna Dunnings, who is now the county's chief financial officer. Stroger pointed out that Dunnings has worked for the county for 20 years before ascending to the top fiscal post, and called her a "credit to her office."
Stroger took over as county president in February 2007 after his father, John Stroger, who ran county government for 12 years, suffered a stroke and later passed away. Stroger said yesterday the enormous amount of criticism he faces stems from that election.
"My dad was a great leader, but when he was not able to run, only a few people would have the opportunity [to take over], and I knew that I was one of them," he said. "Since then, all the editorial boards want to push out Todd Stroger."