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Gun tax court decision vaporizes a Cook County revenue source at the cusp of budget hearings

Monday, October 25, 2021
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

The Cook County Board of Commissioners is set to plunge into a full week of departmental budget hearings on Monday, days after the Illinois Supreme Court blew a nearly $2 million hole in board President Toni Preckwinkle’s budget proposal.

The state’s highest court struck down as unconstitutional the county’s Firearms Tax on Thursday, calling it an overly burdensome infringement on county residents’ Second Amendment Rights. Enacted in 2012, the tax adds $25 to the cost of any new gun and one cent or five cents to the cost of each cartridge of ammunition, depending on the kind of bullets.

A spokesperson for Preckwinkle released a statement on Friday saying she was “disappointed” in the court’s decision.

“The use of guns have had a significant impact on the County’s public safety, health and general expenditures,” the statement read. “Addressing societal costs of gun violence in Cook County is substantial and an important governmental objective. We continue to maintain that the cost of a bullet should reflect, even if just a little bit, the cost of the violence that ultimately is not possible without the bullet.”

But her statement did not speak to the potential impact of the court’s decision on the county’s bottom line.

As of earlier this month, the county was on track to pull in about $1.56 million from the Firearms Tax in Fiscal Year 2021, which ends on Nov. 30. Preckwinkle’s proposal to fund county government through November 2022 anticipates $1.65 million from the tax.

Preckwinkle’s office will “meet with our legal counsel and determine any next steps that may be warranted,” according to the statement.

If the president’s administration does not find a legal workaround to keep a version of the tax in place, her finance team will be responsible for finding other revenue sources or cutting spending to make up for the lost funding source.

As proposed earlier this month, Preckwinkle’s plan would balloon the county’s budget to about $8 billion, mostly accounting for a surge of enrollees in the CountyCare Medicaid program. It would also add nearly 1,600 new employee positions, bringing the county’s paid headcount to its highest level since 2015.

Related: Preckwinkle promises big new hiring, spending that ‘won’t burden the taxpayer’ in $8B budget plan for 2022

The budget does not call for any new taxes, layoffs, fines or fees, and most commissioners have so far responded warmly to the plan. Preckwinkle’s 2021 budget proposal passed unanimously last year.

Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki and Budget Director Annette Guzman are set to kick off Monday’s budget hearings at 9 a.m. with an overview of the president’s budget proposal. They will also detail how county leaders hope to begin spending the approximately $1 billion Cook County will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Offices under the president

The budget overview will be followed by a presentation from Preckwinkle chief of staff Lanetta Haynes Turner on the various budgets for the Offices Under the President, which span 11 administrative bureaus and departments handling the county’s finances, physical assets, economic development initiatives and more.

The various offices are in line for about $1.71 billion in total budget appropriations, paying for 2,003 full-time equivalent positions.

The budget for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer is set to nearly double from 13 to 26 full-time positions, and the Department of Revenue is in line to grow from 79 to 86 spots. Preckwinkle said this month that the county will likely need to beef up its finance administration staff to oversee spending of the American Rescue Plan funds.

Board of Election Commissioners

Monday is poised to see a line of relatively small county offices present their budgets, starting with the county’s Board of Election Commissioners, whose budget is set to explode from about $1.2 million in 2021 to nearly $24 million next year as it prepares to administer the June primary election and November general election across the county.

The department plans in 2022 to allow voters to “join a permanent roster” for voting by mail, a mechanism expanded under state laws passed this year and last year.

Related: Dems advance vote by mail expansion bill over GOP concerns of ‘vote harvesting’

Secretary to the Board of Commissioners

The modest budget for the county Board of Commissioners is set to be presented by board secretary Lynne Turner, who assumed the role after longtime secretary Matthew DeLeon retired this summer. The secretary’s office is set to hold steady at 11 positions and tick up slightly to an approximately $952,000 budget.

Each county commissioner’s office will be awarded a $400,000 operating budget, unchanged from last year. It includes a $85,000 salary for each commissioner and funding for four staffers each.

Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13) advanced an ordinance (21-5258) earlier this year directing a consultant to explore the possibility of pay raises for commissioners and other elected county leaders.

Office of the Public Administrator

The office of Public Administrator Louis Apostol, charged with administering the estates of dead residents without private representation, is set to tick up from about $1.4 million to $1.5 million next year. Its headcount will remain steady at 15 full-time positions.

Office of the Independent Inspector General

Cook County Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s office, charged with performing outside audits and investigating misconduct among county employees, is also due for a modest uptick. Its budget will rise by about $70,000 to about $1.9 million, while its employee headcount remains unchanged at 19 positions.

Blanchard is set to step down next year after 14 years in the office.

Treasurer

Treasurer Maria Pappas’ office, responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of thousands of taxing bodies across the county, is in line to see a dip in its budget as the office shrinks from about 78 to 73 full-time staff positions — all at Pappas’ request, budget documents show. The office is set to shed four positions in its finance division and five positions in the “operations” category while adding staffers to “administration” and “research.”

The office will aim next year to print, package and mail all the county’s tax bills within 10 days of each installment period, budget documents show.

Assessor

Despite longtime complaints that his office is understaffed, Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office is set to hold firm at 276 full-time positions next year. The office’s budget will grow from about $31.1 million to $33.8 million, mostly due to salary bumps.

Related: Kaegi, Board of Review plead for more staffers: ‘We need more bodies to throw at these files’

Kaegi’s office is set next year to reassess properties in the county’s north and northwest suburbs while it continues to transition to new software overseen by Tyler Technologies.



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