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No New Taxes in Cook County Budget

Thursday, October 10, 2019
by Amanda Vinicky

Two years after Cook County implemented and hastily repealed a notorious tax on sugary drinks, Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday morning will propose a $6.18 billion budget that’s balanced without any new or higher county taxes.

“I think we’ve faced different challenges at different points in my tenure,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday during a media preview. “The budget that we have this year is reflective of, as I said, the hard choices and the difficult decisions that we’ve made for more than a decade.”

Preckwinkle said the consensus of commissioners after an initial briefing was “pretty positive.”

They’ll get more details on the proposed 2020 fiscal year budget (which will take effect at the start of December) in a series of hearings starting late this month that run through early November, leading to a vote scheduled for Nov. 21.

Preckwinkle says she is “hopeful” it will pass.

Document: Explore the budget proposal.Document: Explore the budget proposal.Among the bigger capital projects in the works: a new Provident Hospital facility and new election equipment.

In keeping with Preckwinkle’s goal of moving away from a punitive approach to criminal justice, the proposal will provide money for more court clerks to help expunge criminal records, more assistant state’s attorneys to be assigned to either expungement or a new gun crime safety unit and pretrial services, probation and social caseworker positions with the chief judge’s office. The number of employees under the sheriff is to remain constant, though as the jail population decreases as a result of the county’s criminal justice reforms, a handful of corrections officers will shift to electronic monitoring.

It comes as an Illinois law that will legalize cannabis in January gives Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a Preckwinkle ally, the ability to nearly automatically expunge tens of thousands of marijuana convictions.

“You know, look. black and brown communities have been devastated by the war on drugs. Disproportionally impacted,” Preckwinkle said. “And so whatever we can do to kind of right that wrong – and that wrong was at the behest of government. Both parties bought into the idea that we should declare war on drugs, and the impact of that was devastation in black and brown neighborhoods … and since black and brown people are disproportionally impacted by marijuana arrests, we should do everything in our power to expunge their records and help people.”

In total, 265 additional employees will be hired across county government.

That includes 17 new positions with Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office, which has in the past couple of years seen annual 15% spike in the number of property owners appealing their valuations.

Even with all of that, the proposal calls for a net loss of 401 county jobs.

No one will be laid off. Rather, 638 vacant positions with the county’s health care systems will go unfilled, even as two new health centers, in North Riverside and Blue Island, are set to open.

Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki said the lower staffing will not jeopardize patient services.

“The health care system has been very strategic,” he said.

Cook County will see additional revenues due to changes in state law, including a projected $3.2 million more from additional gaming at existing casinos and racetracks and $1.75 million from sports betting once that rolls out.

The budget is not, however, predicated on revenue via a county sales tax on online purchases, a Chicago casino or marijuana – Cook County will be able to tax cannabis purchases, but likely not until Sept. 20, 2020, and by the time those receipts are in, it’ll be fiscal year 2021.

Preckwinkle’s budget team stressed it aimed to fill a gap it had forecast early on at $11.9 million, it focused on structural changes rather than one-time savings.

It was possible to do that this year without undoing a practice in place since 1994 that caps the property taxes it collects, rather than tying it to inflation.

But already, Preckwinkle’s team projects a budget gap next year of $109.7 million (including a $56.7 million fiscal 2021 general funds gap plus a $53 million Health Fund deficit), as inflation outpaces revenue from the county’s tax on cigarettes and a court service fee, and as the county’s hospitals and clinics take on an oversized share of charity care patients.

Preckwinkle said she’s “not going to predict” how the county will deal with those future problems, and whether capturing property tax inflation will be part of the plan down the road.

Still, the county’s relatively rosy fiscal picture is a far cry from what Preckwinkle would have dealt with had she won the April race for mayor.

Chicago faces an $838 million shortfall, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot will have to disclose on Oct. 23 how she plans to fill it.

Preckwinkle said she has had “several conversations” with Lightfoot but not about their budget goals.

Taxpayers who want to digest the ins and outs of county finances can do so on a new interactive website that Budget Director Tanya Anthony said is meant to make the budget available to the public in an “accessible and transparent way.”

Note: Preckwinkle is scheduled to appear Thursday on “Chicago Tonight.” Ways to watch the show.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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