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Layoffs, tax hikes possible as Cook County braces for one-two punch of budget holes for this year and the next
Seventy positions have already been cut, and about 35 people laid off at the county’s health system over the past week, Andrea Gibson, Cook County Health’s interim chief business officer, said Thursday.

Friday, June 26, 2020
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rachel Hinton

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Thursday “everything is on the table” as county officials brace for a budget gap the COVID-19 crisis has stretched to nearly $281 million for the rest of the fiscal year and possibly as much as $409 million for next year.

That could mean new taxes, furloughs and layoffs. Seventy positions have already been cut, and about 35 people laid off at the county’s health system over the past week, Andrea Gibson, Cook County Health’s interim chief business officer, said Thursday.

“This is the largest budget gap we’ve seen in almost a decade, so we’re going to be looking at holdbacks, we’re going to be looking at delaying purchases, renegotiating contracts with our vendors, a variety of strategies to meet the challenge that we face,” Preckwinkle said.

How many workers will ultimately need to be laid off is still “to be determined,” the board president said.

County officials laid out their preliminary budgets for the rest of the 2020 fiscal year and projections for 2021 on Thursday, painting a grim fiscal picture for the county’s pocketbook in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 shortfall is composed of two parts. One is the general fund, which covers offices controlled by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and others. The other part is the health enterprise fund, which covers the county’s health apparatus.

The county projected a $219.7 million gap between its finances and its adopted budget, and the health fund a shortfall of $61 million, officials said.

In 2021, officials project those deficits will balloon to $222 million for the general fund and $187 million for the health fund.

The county has already implemented some corrective steps, such as reducing some contracts and administrative positions in the health system, using federal emergency dollars and taking back 6.5% of funding to some departments and other elected officials’ offices, in a move called a holdback, to address the current budget gap.

In a memo to the county’s Board of Commissioners Monday obtained by the Sun-Times, Annette Guzman, the county’s budget director, urged the various departments in the county to submit their preliminary budgets by July 24 and to use the time until then “to formulate a leaner and responsible budget that reduces costs, improves efficiencies, and prioritizes the required core functions of your office.”

As dire as the projections are, Ammar Rizki, the county’s chief financial officer, said they are based on a “middle of the road” scenario.

“One of the unique things for this year and next year is that we just don’t know how the pandemic is going to play out,” Rizki said. “As we look at next year’s projections specifically, there are three sets of projections that we’ve looked at: a worst case, a middle of the road case and a more optimistic case.”

A potential second wave of COVID-19 later this year could also affect the county’s fiscal health as officials work on finding a “delicate balance” between the county’s finances and the services it offers, Rizki said. Every month that the economy is in “a suspended state like it is right now,” the county could see another $25 to $30 million tacked onto its budget gap.

Overtime expenses, as well as the purchasing of supplies to address the virus, have driven up the county’s expenditures, while dramatic decreases in the county’s sales, amusement, county use and hotel accommodation taxes have driven down the county’s incoming revenue



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