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Cook County officials spar over budget cuts in wake of pop tax repeal

Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Faced with having to make $200 million in spending cuts after repealing the soda pop tax this month, Cook County officials on Monday warned of consequences and pointed fingers at each other.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presented 10 percent in cuts from the relatively small portion of county spending over which she has direct oversight, but her office warned of dire consequences that would come from eliminating 48 positions, 34 of them through layoffs and reducing grant funding. That would result in fewer mental health screenings for Cook County Jail detainees, put the medical examiner’s accreditation at risk and open the county to risk of cyberattacks, chief of staff John Keller said.

“There is a point at which streamlining our staff becomes a euphemism for gutting our essential government services,” Keller told commissioners during the first day of budget hearings.

In memos to Commissioner John Daley, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee that’s holding the hearings, several other countywide elected officials warned of budget-cutting consequences. Assessor Joe Berrios said he’d eliminate 42 currently vacant jobs. County Clerk David Orr and Inspector General Patrick Blanchard said they’d have to combine position cuts with unpaid furlough days for workers, and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she’d have to stop prosecuting certain types of criminal cases.

Dr. Jay Shannon, CEO of the Health and Hospitals System, said the cuts would lead to the closure of Oak Forest Health Center in the south suburbs and the elimination of a fund that provides tuberculosis vaccinations. And Sheriff Tom Dart offered up a set of changes to areas not under his direct control — among other steps that still wouldn’t allow the two biggest-spending county agencies to achieve the 10 percent in cuts Daley had requested.

Dart’s recommendations included getting rid of the Forest Preserve District police force and letting his officers take over their work, as well as closing branch courts under the jurisdiction of Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans . He also suggested the closure of jail divisions and furloughing employees, areas he does control.

Board of (Tax) Review commissioners, meanwhile, contended they shouldn’t have to make any cuts, while Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough recommended new service fees that would have to be authorized by state government. Only Treasurer Maria Pappas bucked the trend of resisting change or offering the bare-minimum 10 percent cut. She proposed slashing 25 percent from her $1.3 million budget — which accounts for a small fraction of the $5.4 billion total county budget.

But several commissioners pushed back at what one has described a “sky-is-falling” mentality on the part of the administration and elected officials, contending the cuts give them a chance to start remaking county government.

“We have an opportunity to do something that county government has not done in quite some time, that’s look to make meaningful cuts in noncritical areas,” said Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican who was the lead sponsor of the pop tax repeal. He also took issue with the lack of a comprehensive set of proposed cuts from Preckwinkle. She put out her 2018 budget plan about a week early, when the pop tax had no expiration date, saying it was balanced and that it would be up to commissioners to put it back in balance if they voted for repeal.

“You know where everything is, systemwide,” Morrison told Preckwinkle’s top budget officials. “My colleagues are going to need the direction from you.”

In response, Budget Director Tanya Anthony said, “The next step is to work with commissioners on amendments, and we’re happy to avail ourselves of that process.” Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki added, “This is a starting process, and we will be working collaboratively with the board.”

Commissioner Deborah Sims, a Chicago Democrat who voted for repeal, came to Preckwinkle’s defense. “We asked for this, so now we’ve got it, so now we’re the ones that have to deal with it,” she said.

Despite all the uncertainty, it was clear that commissioners weren’t in the mood to entertain raising taxes after facing the wrath of residents over the pop tax.

“As elected representatives, we must acknowledge these concerns and seek solutions that address this — Cook County’s budget issues — without further burdening the residents of this county with increased taxes,” Daley said.

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