As Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle prepares to raise the Cook County sales tax by one penny, she should consider that it was that same penny that got her predecessor “lynched in the media.”
On December 4, 2006, Todd Stroger was sworn in as Cook County Board President. He replaced the interim Board President Bobbie Steele, who had only been in office since August 4th of that same year, completing the term of Stroger’s father. John Stroger had been County Board President until he was incapacitated with a stroke.
New County Board County Board President Stroger only had three months to craft an $3.1 billion budget that had a $500 million deficit . “The apparatus was in place to put a budget together, but no one took responsibility during the interim presidency,” Stroger said during an interview.
Stroger consulted his advisers, who all agreed that county government needed to be reformed. Stroger mandated across-the-board cuts of 21% for all 28 departments under his control. He requested the same from the other county officers, who all generally complied, with the exception of the Sheriff’s and State’s Attorney’s Offices.
When Stroger directed the hospital system to make “$90 million” in cuts, they recommended closing Provident and Oak Forest Hospitals. “Oak Forest was in the South Suburbs, and our flagship hospital, the County Hospital is 45 minutes away from Robbins. Our (Black) people needed that hospital, especially with so many Blacks moving to the South Suburbs,” Stroger stated.
“And when you look at Provident, that hospital was the biggest economic engine in that community, plus Michael Reese (hospital) was going to close. It was just too important to close, so we went back to every department and scraped together every bit of money we could, and we kept those hospitals open and balanced the budget in our first year.”
In Stroger’s 2nd year, Cook County found itself $238 million in the hole again because “the union agreement increased every year. We had to solve the problem.” So Stroger along with Ralph Martire and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability came up with a plan that “paid the bills without taking it out on the employees or over burdening the taxpayers, but we knew we needed revenue.”
In 2007, after trimming as much waste as possible, making almost every reform suggested by advisers and critics alike, and even voluntarily signing on to the Shakman decree, President Todd Stroger passed a balanced budget that included a one penny sales tax increase.
“Not only was the budget balanced, it addressed the structural deficit created by the labor agreements that continue to increase every year, “ Stroger said. “When President Preckwinkle came in she basically replicated my plan, but when she cut the sales tax, she found herself back at square one.”
As Preckwinkle seeks to pass the same one-penny sales tax that many say was the deathblow to the Stroger Presidency, she is finding unlikely opposition.
“The sales tax may be the easiest for the County Board to pass, but it will be hardest on the working families when everyday purchases – diapers, toothpaste, kid’s clothes – get more expensive. And it will be hardest on businesses who risk losing customers to Indiana or Will County. Cook County needs revenue to provide quality health services and a just criminal justice system, but a tax that hits the hardest on the hardest hit is not the way to go,” County Commissioner Bridgette Gainer (D-10) emphasized.
The “Toni Tax” as it is being called will likely pass, but no politician ever wants their name directly associated with a tax. Just ask Stroger.
“The newspaper and media made my name and tax synonymous. Say tax and people said Stroger. Water, property…any tax was The Stroger Tax, and I only asked for one penny,” Stroger finished. “At least I kept the hospitals open for that penny.”