Video: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unveiled the proposed 2022 budget that spends a good deal more than last year, but she says will put no new taxes on residents. (Produced by Blair Paddock)
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday proposed closing the $121.4 million budget gap in the county’s 2022 spending plan with cash generated by gaming, cannabis sales and an economy improving faster than expected — without hiking taxes or cutting services.
Cook County officials, who must approve a budget before the end of the year, find themselves in a much different financial situation than a year ago when they were forced to bridge a $410 million gap in the county’s 2021 budget, which had been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic catastrophe.
While officials raided the county’s reserve funds and eliminated 659 vacant positions to help bridge the gap a year ago, the county’s coffers are now flush not only with more revenue than it expected from gaming, cannabis sales and online shopping but also $1 billion in federal relief funds.
“Amid a historic pandemic, this proposed budget will have no tax increase, no cuts to critical services and will be balanced while increasing our investments in equity,” Preckwinkle said in address Thursday morning to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. “The good work we’ve done will guide the good work we will do.”
Preckwinkle’s $8 billion plan calls for Cook County’s workforce to grow by approximately 1,600 employees to a total workforce of more than 23,000 workers in 2022 “to prepare capacity for the rising demand of government services” and spend the federal relief funds sent to the county by the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden.
Most of those new positions will be at the Cook County Health and Hospital System, which bore the brunt of the pandemic’s impact, providing half of all the charity care in the county at just two hospitals.
Preckwinkle wants to spend the county’s share of the federal relief package on a host of initiatives designed to increase equity in Cook County.
That includes $80 million to send cash directly to the county’s poorest residents and to fund a study of whether a universal basic income could help residents recover from the economic catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic and fight poverty.
Preckwinkle also proposed funding efforts designed to help residents find a place to live or to hang on to their homes. Job training and job placement assistance programs would also get funding, and grants would help small businesses struggling to keep their doors open.
Another $60 million would fund programs that will offer an alternative to calling 911 for those suffering mental health crises. In addition, funds would be used to assist those returning to Cook County from jail or prison and to expand programs for young adults and reduce violence.
Preckwinkle also said she would earmark funds to expand access to broadband internet throughout Cook County.
The spending plan also maintains Preckwinkle’s practice of contributing more than the county is required into its pensions to ensure they can pay retired employees the benefits they earned. In 2022, Preckwinkle plans to make an additional $325 million pension payment, with $20 million headed to the pension fund’s reserves.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners is expected to approve the spending plan before the end of November.