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Cook County commissioners approve budget, voting 16-1

Cook County Board members approved a 2012 budget Friday that looks to fee increases, new taxes and hundreds of layoffs to erase a $315 million budget shortfall.

The $2.9 billion spending plan passed by a vote of 16-1, in a move that paves the way for higher taxes on booze and cigarettes, as well as several belt-tightening measures Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says will save the county $219 million.

William Beavers was the only commissioner to vote against the budget plan.

Friday’s budget approval also means Preckwinkle’s administration will follow through on the threat to lay off 775 county workers. Her administration still hasn’t convinced union workers to accept unpaid days off – including some unpaid holidays – in lieu of about 500 layoffs, despite ongoing negotiations.

"I think there were choices to be made, both from the executive branch and the legislative branch and on the part of our union leadership, and we made the choices we had to make," Preckwinkle said after the meeting.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 5,000 county workers, had been pushing lawmakers to dip into the county’s reserve funds, hike cigarette taxes or impose a tax on cigarette rolling machines in order to avert layoffs.

But commissioners rejected both cigarette-related taxes Friday. And Preckwinkle has dismissed the idea of dipping into the county’s already-low rainy day fund, saying any further withdrawals could make it more expensive for the county to borrow money.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for AFSCME said he was "extremely disappointed" in Friday's vote.

"If there are further negotiations, they should be between the president and commissioners, with the goal of passing a penny tobacco tax and saving the vital services county residents expect and deserve," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said in a statement.

Preckwinkle had originally been calling for more than 1,000 layoffs, but said her administration has since found savings in other spots to save 280 jobs. Of the remaining 775 job cuts, 186 will come from the Cook County Health and Hospital System; 129 from the Clerk of the Circuit Court; and 87 from the State’s Attorney’s office.

In addition to layoffs, the budget also aims to cut costs by reducing the populations in the Cook County Jail and the juvenile detention center, and privatizing some janitorial services.

And after much negotiation with county health officials, the budget slashes funding to the Cook County Health and Hospital System, which serves many low-income patients, from $276 million in 2011, to $254 million in 2012.

The 2012 spending blueprint also banks on the county raking in at least $50 million in revenue increases that could hit everyone from drivers to drinkers to smokers.

Cook County residents will notice an increase in so-called “sin taxes”: Alcohol taxes will increase to $.09 per gallon for beer, from $.06 per gallon, and liquor taxes will also go up, despite objections from the county’s service and restaurant industries. The tobacco tax will be expanded to include cigars, roll-your-own tobacco and chew.

Commissioners also approved a tax on the sale of vehicles, boats and trailers, and higher vehicle sticker fees for residents of unincorporated Cook County.

Preckwinkle has drawn praise from county board members of both parties for giving ground on some of her more controversial budget ideas.

Just before Friday morning’s budget meeting, Preckwinkle held a news conference to announce she was restoring 76 positions to the offices of the Cook County State’s Attorney and the Public Defender.

The county will still move ahead with a new $4.75 parking fee at county facilities. But it won’t apply to jurors at courthouses or to law enforcement officers, per some commissioners’ objections. Preckwinkle also backed off a plan to charge residents of unincorporated Cook County for sheriff’s police patrols after some commissioners complained the measure would pit Chicagoans against suburbanites.

Despite the county’s budget woes, Preckwinkles is also forging ahead with a quarter-cent roll back of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike that passed in 2008 under former Board President Todd Stroger. The repeal will mean approximately $55 million less revenue for the county in 2012.

The roll-back is also what led Commissioner William Beavers, D-Chicago, to cast the lone dissenting vote.

"I didn't like the budget from the beginning," said Beavers, who was a staunch Stroger ally and is a political opponent of Preckwinkle's. "Like I told you before, these were poor people taxes that they're putting on people, I didn't like the idea of it. We shoulda kept the penny."

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