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County Board President Toni Preckwinkle outlines $6.9 billion budget plan: ‘This pandemic has dealt Cook County and its residents a catastrophic blow’
Friday, October 16, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Alice Yin
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle outlined her plans Thursday for a $6.9 billion 2021 budget that would plug an overall projected $409 million coronavirus-driven shortfall through layoffs, tapping reserve funds and new revenue from online sales, weed and gambling taxes.
During a Cook County Board of Commissioners special meeting, Preckwinkle presented her tentative budget in a speech driving home her mission to deliver racial equity through government and enunciating the deep pain the pandemic has inflicted on people and businesses both locally and across the country.
“This was worse than any rainy day we had feared,” Preckwinkle said. “But despite the precipitous drop in revenue, through a decade of tough decisions and strategic management, I can stand here today and say the budget that I present weathers the 2020 storm.”
Cook County government’s general fund is expected to face a $222.2 million deficit, while the health fund, which includes the CountyCare insurance program and Stroger and Provident hospitals, has a projected $187 million shortfall, officials said.
Preckwinkle’s proposed budget, which is expected to be finalized in a Nov. 24 vote, would be balanced and still increase spending by $700 million from this year, Preckwinkle’s budget director Annette Guzman said on Wednesday. Most of the additional spending would be attributed to CountyCare’s increasing membership, and the budget was modeled on the assumption that no more federal stimulus funds are coming.
Commissioner John Daley, finance committee chairman, said he is grateful the budget proposal doesn’t raise taxes nor shirk the county hospitals' now-routine charity care for patients who cannot pay.
“This is a very good budget — a budget in very difficult times,” Daley said. “During this pandemic, people are hurting. … Anytime a budget is presented with no new taxes, I would assume the taxpayers are happy.”
After stressing how the pandemic, like so many other historic disasters, has aggravated existing inequalities in the county, Preckwinkle warned that the human and financial toll this year cannot repeat itself anytime soon.
“I will not mince words here: This pandemic has dealt Cook County and its residents a catastrophic blow,” Preckwinkle said. “Cook County cannot — cannot — absorb another financial calamity in 2021.”
Among other things, Preckwinkle’s budget proposal calls for a one-time transfer of $76.8 million from the county’s general fund reserve, which is estimated to be a little more than $400 million, to avoid tax increases and more critical cuts as the pandemic hammers local government revenues. Just under $2 million will be generated in increased fees from the medical examiner, building and zoning, and environmental control offices.
In addition, 659 vacant positions, about 300 from the sheriff’s office, would be purged, and some health and hospital system employees would be laid off. The plan also anticipates a revenue jump from Chicago tax increment financing and county sales tax projections as well as $50 million in reimbursements from federal CARES Act money before it expires in December.
More than 60% of the $1.89 billion general fund budget would go to public safety. But the budget for the Cook County sheriff’s office, which has become a target of numerous advocacy groups who want to defund and reallocate its budget, would drop about 4%, under Preckwinkle’s proposal. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart wrote in a statement Thursday that the elimination of the positions is “significant” but “necessary.”
The $3.39 billion health fund budget also would be increased by $563.4 million from 2020's total, mostly to account for an increase in membership for CountyCare as well as more staffing at the jail’s hospital due to social distancing and a commitment to dole out an anticipated $312 million in uncompensated care. The proposal also would inject $30 million more in the county’s tax allocation to the system, bringing it to $122.7 million.
But the proposed budget, which includes some hospital system downgrades and consolidations in addition to 130 potential layoffs, is already meeting stern opposition from health care workers unions. About a dozen people in a protest organized by National Nurses United gave their own speeches outside the Cook County downtown building Thursday morning, dinging Preckwinkle’s commitment to Black and Latino residents while they chanted, “People over profit.”
“It saddens me to know that these politicians and our Cook County elected officials feels like politics is more important than people,” Tyrone Hawthorne, a Stroger Hospital employee and SEIU Local 73 member, said. “Why would you want to cut these jobs that serve these underprivileged communities? Somebody say, ‘That ain’t right.’”
Despite the proposed cuts, the budget plan reflects some of Preckwinkle’s messaging on fighting inequalities during the pandemic as well, and the county president was sure to center her Thursday speech on those themes.
In Preckwinkle’s budget plan, an additional $20 million would go toward public safety efforts in the next two years such as violence prevention programs, reentry for formerly incarcerated people and restorative justice courts. Another $20 million would bolster small business assistance, workforce development and housing assistance. And more than $350,000 would head to the public defender’s office to establish a unit for immigration help.
Invoking the Black Lives Matter movement that brought out thousands to march against racial injustice in the streets of Chicago this year, Preckwinkle slowly recited the long list of Black people killed by police in America this year before sharing her own personal experience with being called a racial slur growing up.
Preckwinkle said she was not alone in experiencing “that vile, racist, hate-filled word that was hurled my way during my childhood far too often.” And in 2020, after a pandemic often shouldered most by Black and Latino residents, she said her budget plan prioritizes them.
“We refuse to balance this budget on the backs of the residents and the businesses who need resources the most, especially during a pandemic,” Preckwinkle said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how much the Cook County sheriff’s office budget would be decreased under Toni Preckwinkle’s plan. It would be decreased by 4%, not 7%, under her proposal.
Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.