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Cook County budget gap $152 million for next year

Friday, June 28, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Bill Ruthhart

Cook County’s budget gap for next year is pegged at $152 million and Board President Toni Preckwinkle once again isn’t ruling out tax or fee increases to fill the hole.

There are, however, a pair of specific tax hikes that Preckwinkle says are off the table: property taxes, which are unpopular among voters, and the sales tax, which helped end the tenure of her predecessor.

Preckwinkle, who recently announced she’ll seek a second term, offered her annual snapshot of the county’s finances Thursday. She typically releases the projected budget deficit over the summer to kick off budget planning and then county officials spend the next several months patching together a spending plan.

The Democrat from Hyde Park declined to discuss what specific tax and fee increases are under consideration this time. “We’re trying to put everything on the table,” she said. “We have to close a $152 million gap in an environment where we’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit, so we’re going to have tough choices ahead of us.”

Last year, Preckwinkle's budget included a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase, a $25 tax on new gun sales, a 1.25 percent use tax on out-of-county purchases of more than $3,500, a $1,000-a-year tax on slot machines and a $200-a-year tax on video gambling terminals. All told, those were expected to raise about $41.7 million in a $2.95 billion budget.

Next year, county budget officials expect costs to rise by $166 million, including a $52.5 million bump in employee costs at the jail and to hire more workers for the medical examiner’s office to get national accreditation. The county also expects to spend $22.5 million more updating technology in its vast public health system.

Other cost drivers include an extra $21 million to conduct next year’s primary and general elections and $12 million to accommodate a new state law Preckwinkle supported that allows 17-year-olds to be tried as juveniles. The county will have to pay more to keep teens at the juvenile detention center instead of the county jail.

The county also expects to bring in $60 million less next year. About $24 million of that amount is tied to the county’s continued roll back of a sales tax increase that passed under Todd Stroger’s tenure, officials said.

But the county also expects a net gain of $74 million in federal money from Medicaid expansion tied to the Affordable Care Act.

Preckwinkle stressed that the projected $152 million deficit forecast for 2014 is an improvement over ones that were $487 million, $315 million and $267 million the last three years.

“Over the last three years, every successive budget gap has been smaller,” Preckwinkle said. “As the gap continues to get smaller, it becomes increasingly more difficult to reduce expenses.”

Preckwinkle also announced that the county is facing an $18 million shortfall this budget year, a gap she hopes to close by letting some job vacancies go unfilled.

A public hearing on the preliminary 2014 budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 11 in the County Board room, 118 N. Clark St.

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