Cook County board approves tax hike sought by board president

Consumer taxes in Cook County will increase by one percentage point next year as a result of a vote by commissioners on Wednesday.

The county sales tax is currently .75 percent and would rise to 1.75 percent. That would make Chicago's total sales tax rate 10.25 percent, among the nation's highest.

Small shop owners, in particular, fear it will drive away customers.

Seventy-one years after his father founded Hanig's Footwear, Peter Hanig now operates three small shoe stores, including this one on North Michigan Avenue. He knows what customers, like Georgia Fogelson, will be feeling next January when the sales tax at his two Chicago stores break into double-digits at 10.25 percent.

“People are going to be really, uh, irked! How's that for a nice word to say?” said Fogelson.

“I will tell you that, when people come in from out of town -- and we have a lot of out of town visitors -- they're shocked at the sales tax,” said Hanig.

Despite hearing dozens of stories like these from witnesses at a five-hour meeting on Wednesday, nine members of the Cook County Board voted to raise the sales tax.

In part of Downtown Chicago -- the so-called McPier District -- the rate next January will go to 11.25 percent, apparently the highest anywhere in America.

Officials say most of the $470 million a year in new revenue will help the County's underfunded pensions be fully funded by the year 2046.

The move is a surprising turnaround for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. She won election in 2010 promising to cut the so-called "Todd Stroger Sales Tax" of one percentage point. She now notes he used the money for operations, while she's paying off debts he left behind.

“We've reduced expenditures by about $465 million.  We have a work force that 8 percent smaller than it was when we came in the door. We've eliminated 2,000 positions,” Preckwinkle said.

Many taxpayers, though, would prefer more spending reductions instead of more taxes.

“I've been over to other states. And they laugh at us: "Oh, you live in Illinois! When ya movin'?" Pretty soon!” said Steve Mueller.

Mueller said he's about to retire and move to southern Wisconsin.

Before Wednesday's 9-7 vote, board President Toni Preckwinkle said the extra tax money is needed to restore financial health to the county's government worker pension fund.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall noted his group has praised Preckwinkle for her efforts to streamline government. However, he said a sales tax increase shouldn't be considered before a 2016 budget proposal is unveiled.