Photo by Joe Boyle
State Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) listens to a question about the beverage tax during a “Meet and Greet” session at the Green Hills Library in Palos Hills.
An overflow crowd attended the “Meet and Greet” local legislators meeting on Sept 13 at the Green Hills Library in Palos Hills with one issue on their minds – the Cook County beverage tax.
State Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) is usually accompanied at these gatherings by state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), who was unable to attend. Burke told the packed house in the library conference room that she will talk about a variety of issues and would field any questions they have.
And those questions focused on the beverage tax. Officials and representatives from various beverage industries were in attendance and sounded off about the ambiguity of the tax and how it is hurting local convenience and grocery stores.
“From what I have seen, the store owners are getting more and more information that their businesses and other businesses are being hurt by the beverage tax,” Burke told the audience. “This is true especially if you live in an area like Homewood, which is near the Indiana border. I have heard that a store owner said residents are not shopping at his store and are going to Indiana to not only get soda but groceries, too.”
Burke and state Rep. Frances Hurley (D-35th) are two local legislators who are co-sponsoring a House bill that would repeal the Cook County beverage tax.
“This tax is not only affecting local shoppers who are not buying beverages, but they are also buying food elsewhere,” added Burke, whose district includes Evergreen Park and portions of Oak Lawn, Palos Hills and Worth.
Some of the beverage industry representatives who attended the Green Hills Library meeting that evening were speaking out on the issue earlier that day at a Cook County Board of Commissioners hearing. The beverage industry representatives said they oppose Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s call for the penny per ounce tax on sodas and other sugared drinks. Preckwinkle provided the tie-breaking vote to end an 8-8 deadlock by the Cook County Commissioners last November. The tax went into effect last month.
Worth Mayor Mary Werner also spoke out against the tax during the Cook County Board hearing, stating that the tax has resulted in a major financial loss for stores along 111th Street. Other local mayors oppose the tax to varying degrees. Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton says time will tell what will happen with the tax.
“People are concerned, of course,” Sexton said. “I have heard from people about it and I can tell you, they are not happy. Hopefully, they (Cook County Board) can figure this out. Hopefully, they can take care of their business and I will take care of Evergreen Park.”
The county’s tax raises the average cost of a 2-liter soda by 67 percent. The average cost of a bottle of fruit juice or ice tea has risen by 43 percent. Preckwinkle has said that by raising the price on soda, certain coffees and teas, juices, flavored waters and sports drinks at one cent per ounce will help cut down on childhood obesity, diabetes and other diseases that can effect children. Critics of the tax said it was passed solely because the county needs more revenue.
One representative from Dr. Pepper and 7-Up said that they have “1,050 employees and we have not laid anyone off yet, but we are getting close. It’s a money grab, and it’s on our backs.”
Proponents of the tax point to a similar law in Philadelphia they claim is successful. But the beverage representatives at the Burke meeting said that is not correct. They state the city has gone through a rough period due to the penny and half once tax.
“When they passed this thing, I don’t know what they were thinking,” one resident said during the meeting.
Burke said that ultimately the Cook County Board will have to deal with this issue. Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison (R-17th) is leading the opposition to the tax. Local Cook County Board Commissioners John Daley (D-11th) and Edward Moody (D-6th) voted for the tax. The next Cook County Board of Commissioners hearing is Wednesday, Oct. 11.
Burke did mention that the Preckwinkle and the Cook County Board have introduced programs and upgraded county property to the benefit of residents.
“The county has done some good things and provided some great services,” Burke said. “Just look at Swallow Cliffs and what they have done there. There are hundreds of people there every day.”
But Burke added that the Cook County Board may have to make some difficult choices in the future regarding the tax.
“They will have to figure this out,” Burke said. “It’s not having the effect they anticipated.”