Cook County commissioners leading the charge to repeal the much-maligned sweetened beverage tax are grappling with how to make up the money, with one suggesting legalizing and collecting fees from recreational marijuana instead.
Meanwhile, county officials like the assessor and recorder of deeds said tax bills could be delayed and suburban satellite offices could close if commissioners follow through on the repeal, which would take $200 million a year out of the county's revenue.
"I don't know how you can repeal the (tax) and still fully fund any of these county offices," Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican and co-sponsor of the repeal effort, said at a packed hearing Tuesday in Chicago. "We need to look at those services that have less impact on the people," Schneider said.
Following more than three hours of testimony, the board's finance committee voted 15-1 in favor of sending a repeal measure to the full board Wednesday. Only Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston voted to keep the tax in place, something he called an "essential piece of a balanced budget." Commissioner Jerry Butler, a Chicago Democrat, was absent from the vote.
Some commissioners, including Democrat John Fritchey of Chicago, have suggested alternatives -- like legalizing recreational marijuana -- to bring in revenue in the absence of the sweetened beverage tax. He is introducing a county board resolution calling on the Illinois legislature to approve recreational marijuana use.
"It's not a budget solver but that could bring in $25 to $30 million a year," Fritchey said.
Democratic Commissioner Richard Boykin of Chicago said he was "quite frankly opposed to hatchet approach and 11 percent cuts (across the board). We need to be creative enough to look at these things, where the county is in terms of its finances, so we save the jobs of residents in the county without actually causing a crisis."
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios said county satellite offices in the suburbs will close if the tax is eliminated and tax bills might not go out on time. Treasurer Maria Pappas, a supporter of the repeal, said she's prepared to issue across-the-board cuts in her office but doesn't plan to lay off any staff.
Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarborough said her department cut $992,000 last year and already operates with a bare bones staff.
The county executive officers, Schneider said, "try to exact a pound of flesh for these cuts. ... It's always, the sky is falling, everything's going to be devastated, we're going to lose everything. It doesn't have to be that way." He said to expect no cuts following a repeal was a "pipe dream."
Commissioners last fall approved an ordinance that prevents the county from raising its sales or property tax while the penny-per-ounce tax is in place. Schneider said it was his understanding that the repeal of the tax would invalidate the ordinance, allowing commissioners to raise taxes if they decide to. Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle's office echoed that position.
Preckwinkle, a Chicago Democrat, who presented a $5.4 billion budget proposal to commissioners last week, has said ending the tax would prompt 11 percent cuts to health and public safety. The fight over the repeal in recent months has become a nationally watched battle, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spending millions on ads defending the tax and beverage and retail lobbying groups pushing hard to "can the tax."
The tax has brought in $16 million to the county so far, said Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for Preckwinkle, who did not attend the finance committee meeting.
In a statement, Preckwinkle said she was "disappointed" in the day's outcome, but respected the commissioners' authority to "choose our direction on revenue."
"Now, together, we must chart a new course," she said, pointing to seven years of balanced county budgets during her tenure.