Cook County is expected to see a nearly $300 million drop in revenue this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cook County Commissioners are preparing to embark next week on a grim mission to probe more than a dozen county offices for potential cuts as they stare into a budget abyss opened by the Covid-19 epidemic.
The county Board of Commissioners will meet for a special 10 a.m. meeting Thursday to schedule 16 separate Finance Committee hearings next week, all with the mission of fundamentally rethinking the tools county officials need to do their jobs, according to Comm. John Daley (D-11), who will preside over the hearings. “Everything is up for grabs” in the discussions over how to bridge a $280 million projected budget deficit in the 2020 fiscal year and an expected $410 million hole in 2021, Daley said.
“We’re going to have an extremely, extremely tight belt,” Daley said. “Everybody had better lose some weight.”
Related: ‘Everything is on the table’ as Cook County faces $410M budget gap for 2021: Preckwinkle
Daley predicted that next week’s hearings will not be as extensive as the annual budget hearings held in October and November, when the 17 county board members take turns quizzing officials on line items in a 700-page budget proposal drafted by finance officials under county Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Still, commissioners will press leaders of each office about how much revenue they have pulled this year from independent sources like fines and fees, and how well they have been able to rein in expenditures while their staffs worked remotely. County offices partially reopened on July 6.
Commissioners also plan to ask leaders how the pandemic experience has impacted their ability to carry out their core missions, and which programs and staff are essential for their operation.
“For every dollar that’s being spent, we need to know whether it’s really going out into the community,” Daley said. “Can you roll anything back at all? And if so, how would that affect the operation of your office?”
Officials will be asked to show their progress in complying with a directive Preckwinkle issued this spring calling for a 6.5 percent “hold back” on each office’s expenses. County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki said last month that he expects to reap about $95 million in savings this year from the across-the-board spending slow-down, enough to bridge about one-third of this year’s total shortfall. The county’s $2.8 billion Health and Hospital System is also budgeting $35 million in savings from contract reductions as well as several dozen layoffs, and many county offices were able to naturally drive down spending due to their physical workplaces being closed.
That leaves a $26 million gap in the county’s health system budget for this year, and a $100.7 million hole in the non-health budget, that will need to be closed with additional cuts or revenue.
Mid-year budget hearings are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Monday with an overview presentation from Rizki and the county’s Bureau of Finance. It will wrap up 1 p.m. Wednesday with a meeting to weigh the budget of county Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
Jail, courts under scrutiny
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is likely to face especially intense scrutiny on funds he needs to administer Cook County Jail, as members of the board look to pass a resolution (20-2867) this month by Comm. Brandon Johnson (D-1) to “redirect money from…policing, criminalization, and incarceration” and reinvest the money in areas like health care, economic development and housing assistance.
Related: County leaders endorse step toward winding down jail, court funding as grim budget decisions loom
Despite the jail’s population having steadily declined in the past decade, commissioners last year approved a slight uptick in the budget for the sheriff’s office due to its expanded electronic monitoring program and union-negotiated pay raises for employees. Dart’s office was allotted about $598 million for the 2020 fiscal year, comprising almost 10 percent of the county’s overall budget.
Daley said Wednesday that county leaders will likely return to the negotiating table with labor unions to explore delaying scheduled pay increases in exchange for avoiding layoffs.
On June 25, about a week after Johnson introduced his resolution, Dart wrote a three-page letter to Preckwinkle and all 17 commissioners cataloguing his efforts to move away from punitive measures in favor of “community development, mental health treatment and substance abuse programs.”
“Since I became Sheriff in 2006, I have heavily invested in these types of programs based on the fundamental belief that arrest and incarceration are insufficient to address underlying problems that lead to criminal activity,” Dart wrote.
Pandemic-related measures to be taken up by county board
The board is also scheduled on Thursday to codify several county initiatives related to Covid-19, including a resolution (20-3228) calling for the county to pass on $51 million in federal aid to suburban municipalities to cover pandemic-related expenses. Preckwinkle announced the aid package last week.
Related: Cook County suburbs score $51M in CARES Act funds to cover pandemic expenses
Commissioners will take up another resolution (20-3229) outlining the steps in the county’s Covid-19 Response Plan, a document rolled out by Preckwinkle in May detailing a mix of economic development and financial assistance programs designed to help communities hit hardest by the virus to bounce back.
Related: Preckwinkle looks to expand Internet access in 2-year ‘Equitable Recovery’ plan
Finally, the board is set to approve a $1.7 million grant award (20-2744) from the Illinois State Board of Elections to Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s office for upkeep of its voter registration system.