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Cook County marks changing of the guard on finance, public health departments ahead of budget and election seasons

Friday, May 13, 2022
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin



Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki is set to move to the Obama Foundation next month. [Don Vincent/The Daily Line]

Three of Cook County’s most senior officials were showered with praise on Thursday for steering the county’s finances and public health efforts through the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic as all three head for the exits, opening up a new chapter as county leaders look to the 2023 budget and the 2022-26 elected term.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday introduced an ordinance (22-3267) appointing Cook County Comptroller Lawrence Wilson as the county’s interim chief financial officer to take over for Ammar Rizki, who is set to step down as the county’s top financial executive next month.

Preckwinkle also introduced a measure (22-3342) to appoint Lamar Hasbrouk, a medical doctor and health policy consultant, as the next permanent director of the Cook County Department of Public Health. Kiran Joshi and Rachel Rubin, who have co-led the department since April 2020, will step back into the previous roles they held in the department.

Rizki was hired as the department’s director of revenue under previous Board President Todd Stroger in 2010, but Preckwinkle “had the good sense to promote him” to deputy chief financial officer in 2013 and to Chief Financial Officer in 2017, she told reporters after Thursday’s meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

“Ammar is leaving us in a very good place, financially” as he moves to become chief financial officer for the Obama Foundation next month, Preckwinkle said. “So I think attracting a competent and knowledgeable successor won’t be a challenge.”

The county faced a $487 million budget gap headed into its 2011 budget season, and its pension fund was on the road to being insolvent by 2047, according to county budget documents.

Rizki helped Preckwinkle turn the ship around after her election in 2010 —?in part by helping to build an “audit investigation unit” to crack down on tax revenues that were not being collected, Rizki said on The Daily Line’s CloutCast podcast last month.

“At the time, compliance was only around 50 percent of what we should have been collecting,” Rizki said. “Nobody was going and checking to make sure that whatever was owed was being paid.”

CloutCast: Cook County CFO Ammar Rizki on how to spend $1 billion

He also took a leading role in Preckwinkle’s controversial 2015 move to raise the county’s sales tax by 1 percentage point to shore up the county’s pension fund. The tax hike passed in a 9-7 vote, and Preckwinkle’s administration has since credited the move for right-sizing the pace of the county’s pension contributions with an additional $325 million each year. As of last year, the county’s pension fund was more than 65 percent funded and was on pace to be reach a 100 percent funding ratio by 2046, a far higher level than any of Chicago’s four pension funds or Illinois’ five funds.

Rizki took the county’s top financial post in 2017, at the height of Preckwinkle’s failed push to add a tax on sugary drinks to raise money for the Cook County Health system. The county’s need for revenues has since been sated by its ability to charge taxes on cannabis and online sales starting in 2020, he said.

Rizki also oversaw a push to build up the county’s reserve fund, helping it reach nearly $400 million by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit. County leaders were able to capture $77 million from the reserve fund to avoid raising taxes when they were starved for revenue going into 2021.

Related: Cook County to raid reserves, cut vacant positions to avoid tax hikes or major layoffs in 2021

Preckwinkle’s administration will tap a national search firm to find a permanent replacement for Rizki, she said Thursday.

The chief financial officer was budgeted in 2022 to earn a $182,070 salary and oversee a staff of 14 full-time employees.

Whoever takes the reins will be tasked with steering the county’s spending of the $1 billion it received from the federal government via the American Rescue Plan Act —?and with making sure the county is able to keep new programs running when the money runs dry in 2024.

New public health department director

The Board of Commissioners is on track next month to confirm Hasbrouk as the permanent director of the Department of Public Health, which oversees health outreach and education across most of the county’s suburbs.

Hasbrouk was director of the Illinois Department of Public Health under former Gov. Pat Quinn between 2012 and 2015 and then served as director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of County & City Health Officials until 2017. He later was a senior policy adviser at the American Medical Association and launched a health consulting firm called DLM LLC, according to Crain’s.

Hasbrouk “has a breadth and depth of experience which I think will serve him well in this position,” Preckwinkle told reporters Thursday.

The Cook County Department of Public Health, which is housed within the approximately $4 billion Cook County Health system, was given a nearly $102 million budget, mostly comprising grant funding. The department director was budgeted to earn $265,000 in 2022.

Preckwinkle plucked Rubin and Joshi to co-manage the department just after the pandemic hit in spring 2020, when she fired former director Terry Mason.

The president and commissioners spent more than 30 minutes at the start of Thursday’s meeting heaping praise on the two doctors for their oversight of the county’s efforts to track and manage the spread of COVID-19.

“In my estimation — and I don’t think this is an exaggeration — you have literally saved thousands of lives in our county by ensuring access for all to live-saving vaccines and treatments,” Comm. Scott Britton (D-14) said, adding that their “responsiveness was exceptional” whenever he called them with a question.

The board approved all other items included in The Daily Line’s preview of the meeting, including separate measures to push forward nearly $70 million in funding (22-2807) for American Rescue Plan-backed economic initiatives and another (22-2779) to dedicate almost $50 million to various programs within the county’s “Equity Fund.”

Related:?Preckwinkle teases grantmaking revamp, pot incubator program in first $50M round of ‘Equity Fund’ spending?

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