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Cook faces $268 million shortfall next year
Partial hiring freeze in works

Thursday, June 28, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County government faces a budget shortfall of nearly $268 million next year, but that gap could narrow significantly if the U.S. Supreme Courtupholds President Barack Obama's national health care program Thursday.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday that if the Affordable Care Act is a go, the county could get permission to quickly sign up 100,000 uninsured people for Medicaid who now are getting free care at the county's hospitals and clinics. That would result in tens of millions of dollars in federal reimbursement, she said.

Absent a favorable ruling and permission, the county Health and Hospitals System faces a shortfall of $152 million in 2013. The county also expects sales tax collections to drop by $87.8 million as it eliminates the last quarter-cent of former board President Todd Stroger's penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase.

Collections from tobacco taxes, court filing fees and gas taxes also are declining, Budget Director Andrea Gibson said.

In addition, the county faces a $22.4 million shortfall in this year's $3 billion budget. To help close that gap, Preckwinkle said she is not filling vacancies created by retirements unless the positions reduce overtime, boost revenue, are funded by grants or are deemed critical to county operations, such as jail guards or staff at the troubled medical examiner's office.

Preckwinkle also expects savings from further collaboration with the city and has ordered staff to find ways to cut spending in ways that have "the least impact on residents and taxpayers," she said.

The board president noted that cost cuts, along with new and increased taxes and fees, have continually narrowed the $487 million budget gap she inherited from Stroger — even as she has continued to eliminate his much-maligned sales tax hike.

"This is evidence that we're making progress, but that more work needs to be done to achieve the fiscal strength that I want for Cook County," she said.

"Pretty much everything is on the table" when it comes to closing next year's budget gap," Preckwinkle said. "Even though the amount is smaller, it gets harder to close this gap when you've done the obvious stuff in the first couple of years."

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