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Cook County uses hiring freeze to combat deficit

Thursday, June 28, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LISA DONOVAN

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle offered a somewhat gloomy budget forecast for 2013, noting that “everything’s on the table” to erase an expected $267.5 million budget gap — largely created by the health and hospital system and the Jan. 1 sales tax rollback.


To deal with a $22.4 million deficit on the table this year, Preckwinkle said some savings will come from a newly instituted hiring freeze through the end of the fiscal year. All vacancies created by retirements will be left open, unless those jobs reduce overtime, boost revenue, are funded by grant dollars or deemed critical to county operations, including job openings at the troubled county morgue or in law enforcement.

In addition, the county will see $2.4 million in savings by reducing the number or voting precincts, which Preckwinkle says is part of a city-county initiative to cut costs.

As for 2013, she’ll be looking at ways to slash away at the $267.5 million shortfall — $152 million coming from a shortfall in patient billing fees.

The shortfall comes from more people walking through the doors of the county’s hospitals and clinics who can not afford to pay as well as problems billing those patients who can pay. The hospital system is working to fix the latter problem, according to Preckwinkle’s staff.

Next year’s rollback of the county’s sales tax is also contributing to the 2013 shortfall — to the tune of $87.8 million. That’s less than the $95 million projected last year, thanks to an improving economy, Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle rode into office in 2010 on a pledge to get rid of what remained of the county’s unpopular 2008 penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, which pushed Chicago’s overall sales tax to 10.25 percent, the highest of any large city. The combined city, county and state sales tax in the city will drop to 9.25 percent after Jan. 1.

That “penny” was championed by then-County Board President Todd Stroger, who saw it as a means to keeping the vast public health system in running order.

But as the economy tanked, taxpayers tightening their belts wanted to see elected leaders doing the same — not raising their taxes. As the 2010 election neared, county commissioners who feared a revolt rolled back the sales tax increase by half a penny. It was not enough to save Stroger in his bid for re-election.

Preckwinkle vowed — and won enough votes from the county board — to cut what remained of the sales tax increase by 2013 and then reeled in spending to make that happen. Another quarter penny of the sales tax increase was rolled back on Jan. 1, with the final quarter penny to be rescinded next Jan. 1.

She has said she doesn’t regret pushing for the rollback and stands by it.

By law the county must pass a balanced budget, and Preckwinkle said nothing can be ruled out — including employee furlough days that the unions balked at going in to this year’s budget season.

“There will be tough choices to be made,” she told reporters at a Wednesday morning news conference.




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