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Preckwinkle threatens 11 percent budget cut

Tuesday, October 03, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz


Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is going on offense as a vote nears on whether to repeal her highly unpopular tax on sweetened beverages, saying doing so could force an 11 percent across-the-board cut in county spending.

In a fiscal note sent to commissioners just before the weekend, Ammar Rizki, the county's acting chief financial officer, said losing the tax would reduce county income slightly over $200 million in fiscal 2018 without a new revenue source, resulting in "an approximate 11 percent reduction to each of those departments and offices from their base FY2017 appropriated expenditures."

The leader of the campaign to repeal the penny-an-ounce tax said he won't be put off by "scare tactics."

"President Preckwinkle has failed to do the hard work to reform" county government, said West Side Commissioner Richard Boykin, who had been considering running against Preckwinkle in next year's election but last week said he instead would seek a new term. If she had done what she should, only "a small hole" would exist that could be filled from other sources, Boykin said.

Preckwinkle's spokesman rejected that.

Rizki's note came just days before Preckwinkle is due to unveil her fiscal 2018 budget on Oct. 5 and barely a week before the board's Finance Committee is scheduled to vote Oct. 10 on repealing the tax.

The note does not explain why an 11 percent cut would be needed, but Preckwinkle this summer had threatened a 10 percent cut if the tax, then under hold because of a court challenge from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, was not implemented. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Dan Kubasiak eventually lifted his order preventing the levy.

The note does say the projected revenue loss is being averaged across "all departments funded by the corporate fund, public safety fund and health fund." That's all of county government, including such key areas as the sheriff's office and the county's hospital and health network.

Officials from those agencies had no immediate response, but Boykin said such an across-the-board solution "misses the mark."

Instead of threatening, Boykin said, Preckwinkle should be taking steps such as reclaiming funds for budgeted but unfilled jobs throughout county government, "holding the line on wage increases" for both union and administrative workers, and selling some of the county's receivable for debt in the health system. Boykin suggested the latter would enable the county to net $20 million to $30 million on $90 million of overdue bills it might never collect itself.

Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan said that if Boykin "has any ideas that make sense and are rooted in real math," he ought to put them forward.

"Since her election in 2010, President Preckwinkle has closed $1.8 billion in budget gaps, cut $657 million in expenditures, reduced the workforce by 10 percent and reduced bonded indebtedness by 11 percent," Shuftan said. "Commissioner Boykin, like all commissioners, gets regular budget briefings throughout the year. He voted in favor of the current budget and in favor of the current collective-bargaining agreements."

The vote on repeal is very close. Insiders say the measure, which passed 8-8, with Preckwinkle breaking the tie, now has the nine votes needed to pass but perhaps not the 11 votes believed needed for a veto override.

Update—A spokeswoman for Sheriff Tom Dart says the office has been working on an 11 percent cut at Preckwinkle’s request and hitting that target will be “extremely difficult,” with an indefinite hiring freeze and likely some layoffs on the table.

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