There was a Twilight Zone feel in the air at last week’s Cook County Board meeting. Remember the one where the lady keeps ending up in room 22 of a hospital, and it turns out to be the morgue? In the Cook County Zone, no matter how often you wind up in the board’s chambers these days, they’re talking about the budget. The one Cook County Board commissioner Larry Suffredin declared “dead on arrival” last fall.

County Board president John Stroger announced his 2004 budget back on October 30. It never passed–his proposed taxes were just too scary. The $2.99 billion budget (about 4.3 percent larger than 2003’s) included a county sales tax hike from .75 percent to 1 percent and created a 4 percent lease tax on just about anything rentable other than housing. Stroger wanted the new taxes to help plug a deficit then projected at $100 million. Since then, according to his spokesperson Caryn Stancik, he’s cut 246 jobs and found additional sources of health-care revenues, and the county deficit now stands at around $57 million. But Stroger hasn’t been able to get the 17 county commissioners to fall in line.

Democrats Suffredin, Forrest Claypool, and Mike Quigley, along with all five Republican commissioners, oppose the sales and lease taxes, and since November board members have filed more than 90 amendments to Stroger’s plan. About 20 of the amendments propose reorganization measures or cuts, including one that calls for spending reductions of 2 percent overall. Democrat Earlean Collins is the swing vote hanging between Stroger’s opponents and his allies. She’s filed amendments of her own focusing on increasing the board’s power, such as a measure requiring board approval of Stroger’s major staff appointments.

Strangely, until last week the board hadn’t debated or voted on any of the proposed amendments–even though the county’s fiscal year began December 1 and the state requires a new budget by February 28. Instead Stroger and the commissioners have traded barbs about Stroger’s taxes and their ongoing power struggle, while Stroger and finance chairman John Daley have kept postponing votes. Collins complained about that as the County Board meeting began on February 3: “Not one time has Commissioner Daley…put forth any initiative to hear all of the amendments,” she charged. “Every time there was a finance committee meeting it was couched so that nothing could come up but tax increases.”

Here in the everyday world, budget deficits usually mean cutting costs. Collins was about to learn how books are balanced in the Cook County Zone.

“John Daley’s first obligation in my opinion, the basis of any budget, depends on revenue,” Stroger answered Collins. “If there’s no really concrete sources of revenue you can draw any kind of budget you want, but you’ll never have anything that’s effective….There must be some revenue sources, and John in his role as chairman is right in trying to get the necessary revenue sources in line.” Daley said he hadn’t brought up the amendments because no one ever asked him to. The concept of budget cuts had apparently fallen into some other dimension.

Not long after the County Board meeting, the board’s finance committee met. Cue the Twilight Zone theme: Daley joined Stroger on the podium, and the exact same people, sitting in exactly the same seats, became the finance committee. (At least last week they took a short lunch break between incarnations. Sometimes Daley gets up from his commissioner’s seat, sits next to Stroger, and–poof!–the County Board vanishes and the finance committee appears.) Of course, everything the commissioners voted on as the finance committee will have to be reapproved by the commissioners in their alternate identity as the County Board to become official. If you’re seeing spirals by now, you’re probably not alone.

The finance committee–not the County Board, mind you–finally debated and voted on part of the budget, a cigarette tax hike. Stroger’s lease tax was so wildly unpopular that a staunch ally, Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, had proposed replacing it with a tax increase of 82 cents per pack, raising the county’s share of fees on cigarettes from 18 cents to $1. County revenue director Barbara Bruno predicted the tax would decrease cigarette sales in Cook County by 59 percent, but would raise an extra $32 million or so. That would still leave a budget deficit of about $25 million.

The cigarette tax hike generated a lengthy discussion, with the hike’s proponents arguing that the tax’s public health benefits were paramount. And in a fiendish plot twist worthy of Rod Serling, people who have spent their lives trying to end one of the world’s greatest public health scourges wound up on the wrong side of the issue. The American Heart Association and all the other fine organizations arrayed against the tobacco industry couldn’t help but support the tax increase, even though it lets the county avoid slashing that much bloat from the budget. An American Heart Association spokesperson called Stroger, Maldonado, and other pro-tax commissioners “heroes…who are standing on principle to save tens of thousands of lives.” A White Hen franchise owner–who readily admitted his concern was losing money to Indiana and the collar counties–called the talk of heroes “asinine,” since the tax hike’s real purpose was clearly to help plug the budget hole.

Suffredin highlighted the cigarette-tax proponents’ hypocrisy by offering an amendment to use the new revenue entirely for antismoking education and smoking-related health care. The amendment lost. The cigarette tax passed 9-8 with Earlean Collins’s vote. But since it was only a finance committee meeting, Collins can always vote against herself when the cigarette tax comes up at the full County Board meeting. She said she might do just that if the other budget amendments aren’t considered. Doo-doo-doo-doo…

Chairman Daley has scheduled a finance committee meeting February 23 on those other budget amendments. The same commissioners will meet immediately afterward and, calling themselves the full County Board, they’ll vote on a final budget just six days before the state deadline. No doubt a wooden door, a watch, and a disembodied eye will be floating around the chambers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.