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Preckwinkle: Cook County facing 'difficult and challenging' $82 million budget shortfall

Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Gregory Pratt

Cook County is facing an $82 million deficit next fiscal year, setting the stage for what will be a “difficult and challenging” budget season, board President Toni Preckwinkle said Monday.

County officials are planning to offset the budget hole by cutting spending without introducing new fees or taxes, a sharp contrast to last year’s heated controversy over the sweetened beverage tax, which was later overturned. Referencing that ill-fated move, in which county commissioners approved what became known as the “pop tax” before repealing it amid public furor, Preckwinkle said the county decided to forgo $200 million a year in revenue. 

That decision affected not only last year’s budget but subsequent years’ spending, Preckwinkle said. “We have our work cut out for us,” Preckwinkle said. Commissioner John Daley, the Finance Committee chairman, released a statement echoing Preckwinkle’s sentiments. “Closing the $82 million budget gap will be a challenging task,” Daley said. “In anticipation of this gap, the Finance Committee is being proactive and scheduling midyear budget hearings in July to meet with elected officials and department heads to discuss possibilities for cost reductions across county government.” 

In November 2016, Preckwinkle won approval for a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages. Retailers started charging the tax in August 2017, after it was delayed by a court challenge from store owners.  

Under pressure from a public backlash fueled by the beverage industry’s multimillion-dollar campaign against the tax, the board voted last October to repeal it. 

That left Preckwinkle and commissioners struggling to plug a $200.6 million budget hole. The current $5.2 billion budget, which expires Nov. 30, is expected to end with a $600,000 surplus, Preckwinkle’s office said. 

The final budget for fiscal year 2019 is also expected to end up around $5.2 billion, officials said. Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park, cited that history and said the projected budget deficit for the fiscal year that starts Dec. 1, “is nothing compared to what we went through in (the 2018 budget).” “If we roll up our sleeves and scour the budget with a scalpel and not take a hatchet to the budget, I believe we’ll be able to balance the budget without decimating public health, public safety or our workforce,” Boykin said. 

 Preckwinkle’s office noted the projected budget gap for next year’s budget is the lowest since 2011. Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, said she’s buoyed by the low budget gap. But, she said, this year’s budget will be more challenging because many savings — such as cutting vacant positions — already have been realized. “It’s too early to tell whether or not that number can be closed without (raising) revenue,” Gainer said. 

Under Preckwinkle’s leadership, officials said Cook County has reduced its full-time employees by 13 percent since 2010. In 2010, the county had 25,613 full-time equivalent jobs but that number is down to the low 22,000s, officials said. The county has eliminated its projected deficits from nearly $500 million in 2011 to approximately $82 million next year. Driven by “rising personnel costs” and higher employee health benefit costs “rising at the rate of medical inflation,” total expenditures in the county’s general fund are expected to increase by $63 million in the next fiscal year, officials said. 

Corresponding revenues are only expected to increase by $10.5 million. The Cook County Health and Hospitals System is expected to have an approximately $30 million budget shortfall next fiscal year, officials said. Since she took office, Preckwinkle noted, the county also has cut its appropriation to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System by $400 million. 

Last year, Preckwinkle’s office said, the county eliminated more than 1,000 budgeted but vacant positions and had about 200 layoffs. As the county’s budget season kicks off, officials said, Preckwinkle has directed budget workers to seek consolidation of redundant programs, services and real estate, promote contract savings, delay hiring and establish strategies to reduce overtime. The budget forecast’s release is an early step in the process. 

There will be a public hearing on the preliminary forecast July 12. From July 23 through July 25, there will be midyear budget hearings. In August and September, county officials will finalize budget requests with departments, and in October, Preckwinkle will make her executive budget recommendation. Public hearings and final votes are scheduled for October and November, officials said. Twitter @royalpratt

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