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The $200 Million Question: What's Next Now That The Pop Tax Has Been Iced?

By Heather Cherone | October 11, 2017 8:31am | Updated on October 13, 2017 11:46am

COUNTY BUILDING — Cook County Board Commissioners took the final step Wednesday and finally put deeply an unpopular penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages on ice after a revolt by tax-weary county residents.

Commissioners Larry Suffredin and Jerry Butler voted against repealing the tax, while 15 members of the board voted to repeal it, ensuring it would withstand a veto by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

But that action will blow a $200 million hole in next year's $5.4 billion budget. And no one is quite sure how that gap will be bridged.

Preckwinkle said the repeal of the pop tax could lead to community health centers closing, delayed property tax bills and the county being forced to borrow money to buy "new election equipment to protect our voting systems from cyber attacks."

But County Board Commissioner Richard Boykin, who led the charge against the tax, all but accused Preckwinkle and her allies of fear-mongering by warning of office closures, tax delays and hundreds of layoffs.

Boykin said there is more than enough fat in the county budget to cover the shortfall "without decimating public health and public safety."

However, Cook County Clerk David Orr, who is not seeking re-election, said commissioners should not forget that $200 million is a lot of money.

"I don't think people are trying to scare you," Orr said. "People will lose their jobs, and some services may be cut."

Commissioner Bridget Gainer said she — and her colleagues — would be judged by how they make up for the lost revenue.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," Gainer said.

The pop tax is set to end Dec. 1 — just four months after it took effect and created a firestorm.

While the pop tax was designed to balance the county's budget, it also was hailed by public health advocates as a way to reduce the amount of sugary drinks consumed by Cook County residents — which could lead to fewer people suffering from diabetes and other diseases that put a significant burden on the county's health system.

But Commissioner John Frtichey said the pop tax exacerbated another chronic disease in Cook County — "tax fatigue."

The health system also has been stretched thin by violence on the city's South and West sides starting in 2016, sending thousands of gunshot victims to county hospitals. An investigation by the Tribune reports it cost nearly a half a billion dollars to treat some 12,000 gunshot victims between 2009 and mid-2016.

Cook County officials have struggled in recent years to make ends meet, with its spending plan pinched by rising pension costs, increasing debt payments and escalating personnel costs.

About 80 percent of the county's budget goes to its health and criminal justice systems, and spokesmen for Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx and Sheriff Tom Dart warned the board that repeal could result in hundreds of layoffs.

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas was the lone elected official who told the commissioners that her office was prepared to absorb the cuts prompted by the pop tax repeal, which Preckwinkle has said could require every department to slash 11 percent from their 2018 budgets.

Commissioner Deborah Sims said every county elected official except Pappas wanted to have it both ways: They favored repealing the tax, but criticized the looming cuts.

"Why am I putting myself on the line for people that don't get it?" Sims asked, before casting her vote to repeal the tax.