No New Taxes in Cook County Budget

Two years after Cook County implemented and hastily repealed a notorious tax on sugary drinks, Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday morning proposed a $6.18 billion budget without any new or higher county taxes.

“The budget we presented is balanced,” Preckwinkle said Thursday on “Chicago Tonight.” “And by the way, no existing taxes will be raised and nobody will be laid off.” 

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I think we’ve faced different challenges at different points in my tenure,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday during a media preview. “The budget that we have this year is reflective of, as I said, the hard choices and the difficult decisions that we’ve made for more than a decade.”

Preckwinkle said the consensus of commissioners after an initial briefing was “pretty positive.”

They’ll get more details on the proposed 2020 fiscal year budget (which will take effect at the start of December) in a series of hearings starting later this month that run through early November, leading to a vote scheduled for Nov. 21.

Preckwinkle says she is “hopeful” it will pass.

Document: Explore the budget proposal.Document: Explore the budget proposal.

Among the bigger capital projects in the works: new election equipment and a new Provident Hospital facility.

Preckwinkle said a health care needs assessment indicated the need for the new hospital.

“It will be a 79-bed hospital and also provide ambulatory – that is outpatient care, primary care and specialty care,” Preckwinkle said. “It will be just to the west of the existing Provident Hospital and we hope to start it next year.”

In keeping with Preckwinkle’s goal of moving away from a punitive approach to criminal justice, the proposal will provide money for more court clerks to help expunge criminal records, more assistant state’s attorneys to be assigned to either expungement or a new gun crime safety unit and pretrial services, probation and social caseworker positions with the chief judge’s office. The number of employees under the sheriff is to remain constant, though as the jail population decreases as a result of the county’s criminal justice reforms, a handful of corrections officers will shift to electronic monitoring.

It comes as an Illinois law that will legalize cannabis in January gives Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a Preckwinkle ally, the ability to nearly automatically expunge tens of thousands of marijuana convictions.

“You know, look, black and brown communities have been devastated by the war on drugs. Disproportionally impacted,” Preckwinkle said. “And so whatever we can do to kind of right that wrong – and that wrong was at the behest of government. Both parties bought into the idea that we should declare war on drugs, and the impact of that was devastation in black and brown neighborhoods … and since black and brown people are disproportionally impacted by marijuana arrests, we should do everything in our power to expunge their records and help people.”

In total, 265 additional employees will be hired across county government.

That includes 17 new positions with Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office, which has in the past couple of years seen an annual 15% spike in the number of property owners appealing their valuations.

Even with all of that, the proposal calls for a net loss of 401 county jobs.

No one will be laid off. Rather, 638 vacant positions with the county’s health care systems will go unfilled, even as two new health centers, in North Riverside and Blue Island, are set to open. 

Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki said the lower staffing will not jeopardize patient services. However, county hospital officials told Crain’s Chicago Business that the cuts to vacant positions could lead them to “limit charity care based on available resources.”

“The challenge we face is that fewer of our patients are covered by insurance than three or four years ago,” Preckwinkle said. “When the Affordable Care Act was first implemented and we created County Care, our Medicaid expansion program, we saw a continual drop in the number of our patients who were uninsured.”

Preckwinkle says there were a number of reasons for the recent rise in the number of uninsured patients, not least that President Donald Trump has done all he can to undo former President Barack Obama’s signature health care and health insurance reform.

“President Trump despises President Obama and has done everything he can to destroy his legacy, including chipping away at the Affordable Care Act,” Preckwinkle said.

Cook County will see additional revenues due to changes in state law, including a projected $3.2 million more from additional gaming at existing casinos and racetracks and $1.75 million from sports betting once that rolls out.

The budget is not, however, predicated on revenue via a county sales tax on online purchases, a Chicago casino or marijuana – Cook County will be able to tax cannabis purchases, but likely not until Sept. 20, 2020, and by the time those receipts are in, it’ll be fiscal year 2021.

Preckwinkle’s budget team stressed it aimed to fill a gap it had forecast early on at $11.9 million, and focused on structural changes rather than one-time savings.

It was possible to do that this year without undoing a practice in place since 1994 that caps the property taxes it collects, rather than tying it to inflation.

But already, Preckwinkle’s team projects a budget gap next year of $109.7 million (including a $56.7 million fiscal 2021 general funds gap plus a $53 million Health Fund deficit), as inflation outpaces revenue from the county’s tax on cigarettes and a court service fee, and as the county’s hospitals and clinics take on an oversized share of charity care patients.

“Every year we’ve made hard choices and difficult decisions and as a result the deficit that we had to deal – the gap that we had to deal with – has been pretty much steadily declining. This year was $18.7 million and we were able to close that gap without raising existing taxes,” Preckwinkle said. “We’ll look carefully at our opportunities for efficiencies as we look towards next year’s budget.”

Still, the county’s relatively rosy fiscal picture is a far cry from what Preckwinkle would have dealt with had she won the April race for mayor.

Chicago faces an $838 million shortfall, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot will have to disclose on Oct. 23 how she plans to fill it. 

Preckwinkle said she has had “several conversations” with Lightfoot but not about their budget goals.

Taxpayers who want to digest the ins and outs of county finances can do so on a new interactive website that Budget Director Tanya Anthony said is meant to make the budget available to the public in an “accessible and transparent way.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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