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Pop Tax Rejected By County Board Committee — Final Vote Set For Wednesday

By Heather Cherone | October 10, 2017 10:13am | Updated on October 12, 2017 11:51am
 The unpopular Cook County sweetened beverage tax appears to be headed for a repeal Wednesday.
The unpopular Cook County sweetened beverage tax appears to be headed for a repeal Wednesday.
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COUNTY BUILDING — Cook County Board commissioners Tuesday took the first step to repeal the deeply unpopular penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages after hearing 3½ hours of testimony from about 200 people on both sides of the issue.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, whose district includes Rogers Park, parts of West Ridge and some North Shore suburbs, cast the lone vote against the measure to repeal the tax and said he was proud to stand alone. The vote was 15-1.

Commissioner Jerry Butler was absent from the meeting.

The tax, which was projected to raise $200 million annually, raised $16 million from Aug. 3 to Sept. 20 — approximately $2 million less than expected, said Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

In a statement, Preckwinkle said she was disappointed by the vote, which was so overwhelming that it would withstand her veto.

"Now, together, we must chart a new course," Preckwinkle said, adding that "The difficult fight for this revenue has focused me on what matters most: doing the hard work necessary to build a healthier, safer and more efficient Cook County."

The measure endorsed Tuesday by the County Board's Finance Committee — made up of the entire board — would end the tax on Dec. 1. The full board is expected to OK the repeal Wednesday.

Preckwinkle warned commissioners Thursday that they would be forced to make steep cuts across the county to make up for the lost revenue officials counted on from the tax to balance next year's $5.4 billion budget.

That warning was echoed by several county officials representing the courts, the Cook County Sheriff's Office, the State's Attorney's Office and the Public Defender's Office.

County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said more cuts to her office would be "nothing short of devastating."

"My office will be unable to properly represent the indigent of Cook County," Campanelli told the board. "These are people’s lives at stake."

Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who voted for the tax in November, voted to repeal it Tuesday.

Garcia, who ran for mayor of Chicago in 2015, said the ball was now in the commissioners' court "to make hard decisions" about where to cut while protecting the county's poorest residents.

Commissioner Deborah Sims, who represents the Far South Side and south suburbs, said it was clear the residents of her district wanted the tax to be repealed.

"The people have spoken," Sims said.

Store owners and employees of pop manufacturers pleaded with commissioners to repeal the tax, saying their livelihoods were threatened.

But public health advocates urged the board to stand firm on the tax, saying it would reduce illnesses, including diabetes, among Black and Latino county residents.

"It looks like diabetes is the winner here today," said Elissa Bassler of the Illinois Public Health Institute. "Congratulations."

Repeal could force the closure of community health centers, delay property tax bills and force the county to borrow money to buy "new election equipment to protect our voting systems from cyber attacks," Preckwinkle said.

County Board Commissioner Richard Boykin, who has led the charge against the tax, proposed cutting spending and eliminating vacant positions to make up for the revenue generated by the tax, which added 68 cents to the price of a 2-liter bottle and 72 cents to the cost of a six-pack.

Those cuts can be made "without decimating public health and public safety," Boykin said, later calling the repeal vote "a great day for Cook County residents."

The tax applies to hundreds of premade sweetened beverages besides pop. Sweetened drinks prepared to order at restaurants and other locations are not subject to the tax.

The debate over the pop tax has blanketed Chicago area airwaves, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg bankrolling $5 million worth of ads touting the health benefits of reducing the amount of sugar consumed by county residents.

In November, the County Board voted 8-8 on the tax expected to generate $200 million, with County Board Commissioner Robert Steele not present for the vote because of an illness. Preckwinkle broke the tie to impose the tax, which was challenged in court by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

A judge initially blocked the tax from taking effect, prompting Preckwinkle to lay off 300 employees. The same judge later allowed the tax to go into effect.