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Preckwinkle's good-news budget: No tax hikes, minimal layoffs
The Cook County chief relies on some unusual factors to fight off a big financial hit from COVID.

Thursday, October 15, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle today is rolling out a proposed 2021 budget that, despite COVID-19 and its hit to tax revenues, includes no new taxes or fees, minimal layoffs, and counts on no new funding from Washington.

“We’ve worked for a decade to put the county in a good place financially,” Preckwinkle told reporters in an advance briefing last evening. “We had the reserves to deal with this (COVID) calamity.”

But the good news is due in large part to some unusual factors, factors that other local governments—including the city of Chicago—may not be able to replicate.

Overall, the proposed budget calls for spending $6.92 billion.That’s up about $700 million from last year, but more than two-thirds of the increase is in the account that supports the county’s health care system of hospitals and clinics. The system is largely financed with Medicaid and other insurance, with both income and costs rising as more patients join the network amid the pandemic.

The real budget news is in the county’s general fund, which prosecutes and jails criminals, collects property taxes and operates the court system.

Preckwinkle’s financial team is projecting that general fund revenues next year will drop $92 million, or 4.8 percent, mostly because of COVID. But that drop would be twice as large if not for new revenues the county is counting because of previous action by the state legislature—$80.3 million from full collection of the sales tax on online purchases, $13.9 in taxes on legal cannabis sales and $3.6 million from the internet sport wagering levy.

Another $61.3 million was saved in the general fund by not filling 659 vacant positions. Most of them are at the county jail, which has seen the average daily inmate population drop by almost half as more prisoners are released on electronic monitoring before their trial rather than being incarcerated.

The remaining big chunk of cash, $76.8 million, will come from drawing down the county’s reserves. Officials said their overall reserve has grown to $400 million, more than enough, in their view, to maintain the two to three months in unallocated funds that financial analysts prefer.

The county obviously can’t do that every year, though officials aren’t expecting a robust economic recovery from the pandemic until at least 2022.

The health fund will have some workforce reductions, no more than 130 and likely less than that after voluntary employee departures, officials said. And while the fund will be balanced with the help of $122.7 million next year (up from $82.7 this year), the long-term financial future depends on federal action and what happens with the pandemic, they added.

Preckwinkle said the budget includes $100 million over two years for racial equity. Included are a continuation of initiatives such as charity health care and grants to violence-reduction groups, plus expansion of a pilot restorative justice program for some non-violent offenders, and $30 million for a test program in which South Side Metra fares would be slashed to Chicago Transit Authority levels and train frequency increased.The CTA has balked at the program so far.

One problem Preckwinkle but not Mayor Lori Lightfoot will be able to avoid this year is rising pressure from unfunded pension liabilities. The county started putting more money into its funds earlier than the city did, thanks to a penny-on-the-dollar countywide sales tax, and as a result now has on hand more than 60 percent of the money needed to pay promised retirement benefits, more than twice the level as in some of the city's retirement funds.



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