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Many are sour on ‘sweet tax'

  • Written by By Joan Hadac

 

petes fresh market photo 9-21

Photo by Mary Hadac

Two-liter bottles of soda sit on shelves at Pete’s Fresh Market, 10280 S. Harlem, Bridgeview.

 

By Joan Hadac

A proposed repeal of the Cook County Sweetened Beverage Tax has been postponed until next month, but not before a few prominent southwest suburban political and business leaders weighed in on the controversial matter at a public showdown last week.

The proposed repeal was referred to the Board’s Finance Committee at a downtown meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 13. The move was made by its sponsor, Commissioner Sean Morrison (R-17th), who saw that the votes to repeal were not there.

The 17th District includes all or parts of Palos Hills, Hickory Hills, Worth and other communities.

“Ultimately, nobody wanted an ‘up and down’ vote today more than myself, with the exception of nearly 90 percent of the constituents who oppose this regressive tax,” Morrison said at the meeting. “I recognize that there is no political will here today to take up a ‘repeal’ vote; and out of respect for the process and to ensure that this board does vote on this repeal ordinance, which will be on Oct. 11, I’m going to refer this matter to the Finance Committee for full adjudication.”

The penny-an-ounce Sweetened Beverage Tax was approved late last year after a divided County Board vote in which President Toni Preckwinkle cast the deciding vote. The tax went into effect last month.

Implementation of the new tax has caused confusion and outrage among a number of retailers. It also has angered a number of Cook County residents, many of whom are traveling to stores in other counties to buy groceries. Locally, retailers in the Will County communities of Mokena, Lockport and Homer Glen have anecdotally reported sharp spikes in sales of regular and diet soda, sports drinks, lemonade and other sweetened beverages.

Morrison has called the new tax “an absolute disaster” that has had “a devastating impact” on Cook County businesses and consumers.

            Mayor wants repeal

His opinion was echoed by Worth Village President Mary Werner, who said that residents of her town “are being hurt by this tax every day.”

She noted that Worth “has no industry, no manufacturing and no big-box stores. We rely on a Fairplay grocer, a Family Dollar, a CVS and Walgreens for sales tax revenue that provides essential services like the police and fire protection.

“I have in my possession 23 pages of angry comments and copies of dozens of receipts from my residents who are now shopping outside the Village of Worth,” Werner added. “It would be bad enough if people were leaving Worth just to buy their [sweetened] beverages. But they are so mad, and they are so angry, and they are so fed up with the taxes in Cook County, they are doing all of their [grocery] shopping [outside Cook County]; and while they’re there, they’re buying their gas, as well.”

She added that a Fairplay employee told her that soda sales are already down 80 percent since the tax was implemented.

“I am a mother, I am a grandmother, I am a wife. I don’t believe that it is the government’s business to tell me…if I have my grandchildren come over for a sleepover, I shouldn’t buy Hawaiian Punch.”

Business leaders see ‘disdain’

Stephanie Dremonas, a member of the family that owns and operates 12 Pete’s Fresh Markets — including stores in Evergreen Park and Bridgeview — said there is “a huge amount of distrust and disdain for this tax.”

She said Pete’s Fresh 11 stores in Cook County have seen a 15 percent decline in sales. Their DuPage County store has seen an increase in sales, presumably from an influx of new customers from Cook County.

“The next five stores we open will not be in Cook County,” Dremonas added. “From Gatorade to [products with] zero percent sugar…we’re getting dinged everywhere…we’re not working on jewelry store margins, we’re working on 2-3 percent [profit] at the end of the day.”

Jim Garrett, president and CEO of the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau said, “Not a single mayor I’ve spoken with” supports the new tax.

The Bureau represents convention and tourism interests for 62 suburban towns, 60 of which are in Cook County.

Garrett added that he recently met with a group of restaurant owners and “not a single one” supports the new tax. “Please repeal this. It’s not good for business, it’s not good for visitors.”

Speaking against a possible repeal of the tax last at last week’s County Board meeting were an assortment of health and human services professionals who talked about the severe costs — human and financial — of widespread childhood obesity caused in part of overconsumption of sweetened beverages.

They were joined by a handful of evangelical Protestant preachers who made emotional appeals about the welfare of children in the county, particularly in African American communities. Others speaking against a repeal were representatives of several public-sector unions who argued that elimination of the tax would lead to layoffs of government workers.

Cook County Board commissioners who are supporting the tax are John P. Daley (D-11th) and Edward M. Moody (D-6th). The 11th District includes parts of Oak Lawn, Evergreen Park and other communities. Moody’s district includes parts of Chicago Ridge, Oak Lawn, Worth and other communities.