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Cook County Board passes Sept. 30 disaster proclamation extension, property tax late fee waiver

Thursday, May 21, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

Cook County Board members voted Thursday to grant President Toni Preckwinkle an extra 120 days of enhanced powers under a disaster proclamation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioners voted 15-2 to extend the disaster proclamation, which allows Preckwinkle to make decisions without the board’s direct approval, such as issuing executive orders, moving money around and procuring essential supplies such as personal protective equipment. Preckwinkle’s current declaration, approved mid-March, is set to expire at the end of this month.

“I want to just point out that this is not a power grab,” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, a co-sponsor of the resolution. “A power grab is when you’re grabbing something for fun. This is putting yourself in a position where you create more stress because we’re dealing with such difficult matters.”

Commissioners Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, and Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park, voted against the extension, stating that there needs to be more oversight of the government process. Gainer suggested a 30-day extension as an “eminently more reasonable” compromise.

Morrison praised Preckwinkle’s leadership, but argued it is still possible for the board to be consulted on decisions through virtual meetings, phone calls and emails.

“You have done a very admirable job, Madam President, in conducting the county’s business,” Morrison said. “The issue, though, comes down to whether or not we fundamentally need to have another grant for 120 more days of this particular order when there’s absolutely no physical reason that we cannot keep up.”

Commissioner Deborah Sims, D-Chicago, said it “just doesn’t make sense” for the board to be consulted each time Preckwinkle wants to conduct emergency business.

“Everything that we’ve given you the opportunity to do, you’ve done it in accordance with the law, so I don’t see any reason why anyone should be in opposition,” Sims said. “We’re treading in new waters. We haven’t had a pandemic like this before. I think for us to try to stifle this county moving forward is irresponsible.”

Commissioners also voted unanimously to not collect the 1.5% interest rate on late property tax payments until Oct. 1. The late fee would normally be charged each month starting Aug. 3, when the second installment of 2019 bills is due, but this year any payments made by October will be considered on time.

“These are incredibly difficult times for our residents and this measure creates much-needed breathing room for Cook County property owners,” Preckwinkle said in a statement last week.

Part of the disaster resolution includes allowing county Budget Director Annette Guzman to approve budgetary transfer requests greater than $50,000. It was approved 15-2, with Commissioners Bridget Degnen, D-Chicago, and Morrison voting no while calling for more board meetings on budget items.

“Working together, broaching questions and thinking about the different items and … the reflection of how those budget items come to pass and the checks and balances generally result in a better work product,” Degnen said.

Guzman said during the meeting that the current emergency transfers have been used in the past two months to buy supplies such as PPE for Cook County Health, Cook County’s Department of Public Health and the Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security. Such decisions need to be made “quickly” given that vendors are selling out, Guzman said.

Most commissioners stressed the unprecedented times the crisis has thrown Cook County in and said Preckwinkle has stepped up to the plate in responding to the pandemic.

“Challenging times require challenging actions,” Commissioner Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, said. “I will be supporting these (measures) reluctantly. I think everybody, including you, Madam President, wish we didn’t have to do this, that things would get back to normal, but they will someday.”

 



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