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Editorial: Preckwinkle’s Cook County budget is balanced and smart. Other Illinois politicians should take notes.

Friday, October 08, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by EDITORIAL BOARD

Illinois has a long history of leaders guilty of fiscal irresponsibility. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle isn’t one of them. Now wrapping up her 10th year as the county’s chief executive, she has built a reputation for balanced budgets that avoid hitting residents with tax hikes or new fees.

She keeps the impressive streak alive with her proposed 2022 budget.

 

Though the $8 billion spending plan is $1 billion higher than last year’s budget, it’s a spreadsheet balanced without the need for new taxes, fines, fees or tax increases.

So is she resorting to layoffs to keep the books balanced?

“No, we’re actually staffing up,” Preckwinkle told us during an editorial board meeting Thursday. Cook County’s roster of workers would grow 7% in her new budget, which still must be approved by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in November.

Sound money management is hard to come by these days in Illinois government.

Last December, Gov. J.B. Pritzker struggled to find ways to close a $3.9 billion budget hole, a gaping maw created in part by pandemic-diminished tax revenue but also by years of state politicians borrowing and spending far too much. Making matters worse for Illinois is Springfield’s refusal to tackle what Moody’s Investors Service says is a whopping $317 billion state pension system shortfall.

Over at City Hall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot deserves credit for prudently setting aside tranches of federal American Rescue Plan funding to plug revenue gaps now and in 2022 and 2023, and holding the line against aldermen who want to spend it all at once on their progressive agenda. But under her 2022 proposed budget, the property tax levy will still go up by $76.5 million. It calculates to roughly $38 more yearly for a home valued at $250,000 — a modest hike but a hike nonetheless, at a time when Chicagoans feel pushed to the brink by ever-rising property taxes.

One reason why Cook County’s budget outlook looks rosy is the county’s ability to now collect sales tax on online purchases. Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki told us online sales tax revenue represents a “big driver for our positive outlook. In the past decade there’s been a double-digit transition from brick-and-mortar retail to online sales. The pandemic accelerated that transition.”

Preckwinkle’s also getting a massive boost from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, slated to amount to roughly $1 billion for Cook County. Like any other one-time infusion of cash — the people holding the pursestrings can spend it wisely, or fritter it away.

We like Preckwinkle’s plan for the $1 billion federal windfall. She’ll spread it out over three years. In the 2022 budget, $100 million out of $333 million in ARP money will help cover revenue losses and capital projects that otherwise would have been paid for through loans. The rest will get invested into communities: $80 million for cash assistance, a guaranteed income pilot effort, housing assistance and aid for small businesses; and another $60 million for mental health services and violence prevention programs such as street outreach. Budgeting that looks for ways to spend on alternatives to simply putting more cops on the streets is smart governance.

Also welcome news to Cook County taxpayers: At a time when politicians in Springfield have blatantly refused to tackle the state’s pension crisis head-on, Cook County continues to make progress toward getting its pension fund on track for 100% funding by 2046. The pension fund is now 64% fully funded, and Preckwinkle’s proposed budget calls for an extra $325 million pension payment. Rizki told us that, compared to national averages, a 64% funded ratio is “not great. But when you look across Illinois, we look like rock stars.”

The lesson for other Illinois governments? Start playing Cook County’s tune.

The ramp-up in hiring Preckwinkle proposes — 1,600 additional positions — largely centers on the county’s health care system. That’s to be expected, given the impact of the pandemic. As of last week, 54.5% Cook County residents were fully vaccinated, a tad under the national average. Vaccination rates are markedly lower, however, in the county’s south and southwest suburbs. Preckwinkle told us the county has stepped up outreach efforts in those communities, through pop-up vaccination sites, cold-calling and knocking on doors. “We’re treating it the way you’d treat a political campaign,” she said. Instead of votes, vaccines in arms — we like that.

This is not an easy time for politicians in the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois to craft budgets. On top of pension woes and the continued exodus of Illinoisans to warmer, tax-friendlier states, the pandemic has imposed immense challenges on spending decisions. This isn’t the first time Preckwinkle has impressed us with her budget-making prowess. We’ve said before that other leaders can and should glean lessons from the county board president’s money management.

That message remains valid today.

Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

 

 



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