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Cook County officials faced with $200M budget gap after pop tax repeal

Friday, October 13, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rachel Hinton

Cook County commissioners are back to the drawing board as they try to figure out how to fill a 2018 budget gap of more than $200 million after the sweetened beverage tax was repealed on Wednesday.

Commissioners and Board President President Toni Preckwinkle have until Nov. 30 to piece together budget cuts or find new revenue to bridge the massive shortfall, with the county’s new fiscal year starting Dec. 1 — the same day the beverage tax goes out of effect.

Preckwinkle had counted on $200 million from the controversial tax in her budget proposal.

Commissioner Stanley Moore, D-Chicago, said he may propose cutting or consolidating the county’s several human resource departments, as well as merging the courthouses in Skokie and Rolling Meadows.

“We’re going to wait until each department has their budget hearing to see where other cuts can be made,” Moore said. “I’m not going to be aggressive about where the cuts should happen.”

Also on the table is the Oak Forest Health Center, which Moore says is operating on a “skeleton crew.” The building can’t be closed entirely because it’s shared by the federal Department of Homeland Security, but staff and patients may be moved to Provident Hospital, he said.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Chicago, said eliminating vacant positions could help tighten up the budget.

“We have to hold the line,” he said. “The financial reality of the county taxpayer must be brought to bear at the county negotiating table and that means we can’t operate in the same manner we’ve always operated in.”

Taking the “scalpel, not a hatchet” approach, Boykin said the county’s procurement offices and communications departments could be downsized. He also suggested reworking collective bargaining agreements.

The county should also work at curtailing gun violence in Chicago and the suburbs, which Boykin says cost the county around $30 million in hospital bills and other costs since the beginning of August, when the beverage tax went into effect.

Preckwinkle said Thursday “everything is on the table,” but didn’t go into specifics on what that might mean, including whether or not taxpayers may see another iteration of the beverage tax, or some type of new tax.

“This is a challenge because I control 8 percent of the budget,” Preckwinkle said. “[The commissioners] get to choose internally how to make the cuts that are required. I can suggest, but it’s their choice as to how they make those cuts.”

Should a new tax come before the board, Boykin said he “wouldn’t consider that until I’m satisfied that all the necessary cuts have been made.”

Boykin said Preckwinkle should also come up with recommendations instead of “laying the blame at the feet of state government.” Preckwinkle drafted a balanced budget and presented it last week before the commissioners voted to repeal.

The “scare tactics” are “misleading,” Boykin said, and separate elected offices — including the county clerk, public defender, state’s attorney and more — should be told to cut as much as possible to avoid the 11 percent across-the-board cut Preckwinkle has suggested.

“It’s our role to provide for the most indigent and I believe we can do that without decimating services while creating reforms,” Boykin said.

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