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With final tweaks, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s $6.9 billion budget wins approval
Tuesday, November 24, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Hal Dardick
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s $6.9 billion budget for 2021 won the approval of commissioners Tuesday on a 17-0 vote after a series of final adjustments, including reallocating money to keep open a health clinic at Morton East High School in Cicero.
Winning approval of her spending plan was a decidedly easier lift than it was for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who proposed a significant property tax increase and costly borrowing plan. The county’s budget included no new tax increases and instead largely relied on eliminating more than 500 currently vacant jobs and drawing down reserves to get through the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since taking office 10 years ago, Preckwinkle has significantly reduced the number of jobs in county government, with a planned head count of less than 21,900 employees next year. That represents a reduction of nearly 15% from what was budgeted at the end of former board President Todd Stroger’s single four-year term.
She’s also enacted a series of tax increases, most notably by restoring a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase first enacted under Stroger that was later reversed. That extra 1 percentage point is expected to net the county nearly $500 million next year, with nearly 80% going to augment the county worker pension fund that has seen its finances improve since enactment of the tax.
And county finances benefited from an influx of funding from the Affordable Care Act enacted under former President Barack Obama. That has allowed the county to reduce the local taxpayer subsidy for Cook County Health, which now both delivers care to the needy and runs a health insurance plan under Obamacare.
The health system, which runs two hospitals and several clinics while providing health care at the County Jail, accounts for nearly half the county’s spending. In recent years, the local subsidy has started to climb again because more uninsured people are seeking care. For next year, the subsidy will be $123 million, up from $83 million this year.
Msall said there’s also a possibility that the county might have to pay back some of the federal pandemic relief funds Cook County Health has received because of “revised interpretations of federal law.” To help prevent any future confusion about federal funding, Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, pushed through a budget amendment requiring that outside funding of that sort for the health system and the county Land Bank Authority, which works to rehabilitate homes off the property tax rolls, be approved by the County Board.
Commissioners restored about $353,000 in spending for the clinic at Morton, which was sought by Latino commissioners who viewed it as essential to community-based health care, by reducing spending on professional services at the county’s vast public health system.
They also restored about 41 jobs slated for removal at the county Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where some minors caught up in the criminal justice system are held. That additional $2.3 million expense is expected to be covered by higher-than-first-anticipated state funding for the county court system.
And commissioners also restored $2.4 million in spending to restore 46 jobs in the court system for various categories of workers, including probation officers, law clerks, social caseworkers and court coordinators. That’s funded with higher-than-first-anticipated fee collections and additional reserve money.
They also agreed to reduce a planned increase in the cremation fee to $50 from $100, after an outcry from minority funeral homeowners. The permit fee is now $100 and will go up to $150. The $575,000 tab for that will be covered by reducing costs in other areas.
Preckwinkle started the budget process facing what the county estimated as a nearly $410 million shortfall for next year.
To help close that gap, the county will draw down nearly $77 million from its general fund reserve of more than $400 million, which county officials say will still leave them with more than two months of operating funds still set aside. And the elimination of more than 500 vacant jobs — many of them in the sheriff’s office — is expected to save more than $61 million.
There also were more than 100 layoffs at Cook County Health, along with consolidations and downgrades at the county’s hospitals, and an anticipated $75 million increase in revenue from insurance rate increases and newly insured patients who were receiving free health care. They also expect additional federal money for the county’s Obamacare insurance plan that’s called CountyCare.
The county also is expecting an additional $30 million or so from an increase in initially projected sales tax revenue, partly because a new law will allow for the collection of more taxes from online sales, and additional tax increment finance district funds expected to be declared as surplus by the city. When that money is declared a surplus, it is divided up among city tax districts, with the county getting a cut.
And the county also is using $50 million in pandemic assistance received this year from the federal CARES Act to cover COVID-19 contact tracing costs next year, while expecting $13.8 million from its 3% recreational cannabis tax and $3.6 million from its 2% tax on sports wagering — both of which are new revenue sources.
Although there’s a slight dip anticipated next year in day-to-day operating costs, Preckwinkle did manage to find some additional money to address racial inequity issues. An extra $20 million will be spent on programs for violence prevention, reintegrating former prisoners, housing people charged with crimes released on electronic monitoring and restorative justice. And another $20 million will bolster small business assistance, workforce development, housing aid and other economic programs.
Also, there’s a $30 million allocation in the budget for a pilot program to reduce fares on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines to improve transit service in southern Cook County.
In another vote, the board also approved allowing people to pay next year’s property taxes up to two months later without penalty because of pandemic hardships, as was allowed this year. That was proposed by county Treasurer Maria Pappas.
Hal Dardick investigates politics, government finances and taxes for the Chicago Tribune. He previously covered Chicago and Cook County government at the paper, after many years reporting on suburban politics, courts and crime as a freelance and wire-service reporter. He’s a former collegiate gymnast who likes real jazz, good food and fine wine.