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Preckwinkle pledges no new taxes, fees or fines
Good-news budget precedes elections

Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Just in time for campaign season, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle plans to propose a good-news budget for 2014.

"No taxes, no fines, no fees, no increases are part of our budget," Preckwinkle told the Tribune in a telephone interview Tuesday.

In late June, the county projected a $152 million financial shortfall for next year. Preckwinkle plans to fill about two-thirds of that hole by getting more public health system patients into the Medicaid program, assuming there's no negative effect if the federal government shutdown lingers. The Preckwinkle administration declined to offer specifics on how it will deal with the remainder of the budget gap, saying details will surface when the first-term county leader unveils her $3 billion budget Oct. 10.

Preckwinkle's budget speech to the County Board comes six weeks before the filing of nominating petitions starts for the 2014 elections. The board president's job and all 17 commissioner seats will be on the ballot. Preckwinkle plans to seek re-election, and no serious challengers have yet emerged.

"I'll tell you the truth," Preckwinkle said. "We told commissioners last year that we were going to try to do as much of the difficult stuff then as we possibly could so that we had a budget that was less problematic in terms of their re-election efforts."

Last year the county raised cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and approved new taxes on firearm sales, out-of-county purchases of big-ticket items, slot machines and video gambling terminals. Those moves, along with modest fee increases for permits and morgue documents, were designed to raise nearly $42 million.

Collections of the out-of-county tax have been suspended pending the outcome of a court case. The gambling machine and gun taxes also have been challenged in court.

The county also hoped to get more money this year from the federal government by enrolling additional people in Medicaid as part of President Barack Obama's new health care program. Some of that money has yet to materialize because of a delay in processing applications, Budget Director Andrea Gibson said.

Although the Health and Hospitals System led by CEO Dr. Ram Raju expects to increase spending next year by $162 million to more than $1.1 billion, the amount covered through county taxes would decrease by $76 million, according to county budget documents.

The improved financial picture at the health system is mostly due to the county getting permission to do early enrollments in Obama's health care program. So far, 105,000 patients have applied, and the approval rate is running at 89 percent, officials said.

"We are enrolling in Medicaid a significant number of people who were already our patients, who used our services, but for whom we got no compensation for caring for them," Preckwinkle explained.

Public health spending accounts for a little more than a third of the budget. The other major area of spending is public safety, which includes the courts, jail and sheriff's department. The county also maintains a network of highways, keeps vital records and runs the property tax assessment and collection system.

During her first term, Preckwinkle has increased what she calls "targeted" taxes and fees, or those that further policy agendas like reducing tobacco use and encouraging in-county purchases. She also has laid off hundreds of workers and cut spending in other areas.

Those tax increases, plus budget cuts, allowed the county to eliminate the last remaining half-cent of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike imposed under her one-term predecessor, Todd Stroger. Each half-penny in sales taxes equals about $220 million in revenue.

"For the last three years, we got the board to make difficult decisions," Preckwinkle said. "Each of them were tough budgets. Frankly, those tough decisions and our hard work paid off this year."

Once the budget is released, Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, D-Chicago, will set public hearing dates, and separately elected countywide officials — including the chief judge, sheriff, state's attorney, circuit court clerk, county clerk, recorder of deeds and assessor — will weigh in. Final approval likely will come in November, before the start of the county's budget year Dec. 1.

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