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Ald. Roderick Sawyer: 'Commuter Tax' Could Bring $300 Million Annually

By Wendell Hutson | October 16, 2012 8:18am
 Commuters drive along Lake Shore Drive.
Commuters drive along Lake Shore Drive.
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DNAinfo/Robert K. Elder

CHATHAM — Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said he was thinking out loud at City Hall last week before his "commuter tax" suggestion went viral.

"I was making some suggestions on how the city could generate additional revenue to address our pension problem and did not realize there were reporters standing nearby," Sawyer said. "That's actually where the name 'commuter' tax came from. A reporter said it first, not me."

Regardless of who came up with the name, Sawyer said it was worth considering.

"Why should Chicago taxpayers flip the bill alone for services that those who commute to our city benefit from?" he said. "Anyone can go to Chicago parks, beaches and libraries, regardless where they live, all thanks to local residents."

 Alderman Roderick Sawyer said he was thinking out loud when a reporter heard him suggest taxing those who did not live in Chicago but work in Chicago.
Alderman Roderick Sawyer said he was thinking out loud when a reporter heard him suggest taxing those who did not live in Chicago but work in Chicago.
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Leslie Chinn

He estimates the tax could bring in $300 million annually.

Stopping short of calling it a proposal, Sawyer said he wanted to get people talking about ways to bring more money to city government and keep taxes and fees from rising, even though Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not propose doing so in his 2013 budget address to aldermen last week.

How a tax on commuters would be imposed is unclear.

"I am not sure how we would implement a commuter tax as far as collecting from it. I would assume employers would be given that task just as they already do for state and federal taxes," added Sawyer, whose late father Eugene Sawyer was once mayor of Chicago. "Someone who works in Chicago is going to take their paycheck back to their community [outside Chicago] and spend their money there, even though it was made in Chicago. I don't think that's fair."

Others don't hold that opinion.

"I have nothing to do with where my job is located. What's not fair is to punish the employee because their employer chooses to be located in the city," said Renita Sanders, who lives in south suburban Calumet City but works at Provident Hospital of Cook County, 500 E. 51st St. "My employer requires that I live in Cook County, which I do, so if where I live is good enough for my employer, then it should be good enough for the city of Chicago too."

Oscar Ross, who works for a recycling company in Chicago, said, "I don't work for the city of Chicago, so I am not at all interested in helping City Hall pay for pensions. All I want to do is keep working, pay my fair share of taxes and keep things moving for me."

If a commuter tax were created in Chicago, Sawyer said it would surely have a ripple effect and suburban municipalities would probably create their own commuter tax for Chicago residents who work in the suburbs.

The idea of a commuter tax is not unique to Chicago. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in July indicated he'd be willing to consider a tax on workers who commute to Washington, D.C., because the federal district has a limited local tax base.