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No layoffs or tax hike in mayoral hopeful Preckwinkle’s proposed county budget

SEIU Illinois State Council is dropping another $500,000 into Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign. | Ashlee Rezin /Sun-Times

As she gears up to run for mayor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Wednesday unveiled a good news county budget — balanced with unexpected revenue growth and free of layoffs or tax increases.

“I believe this balanced budget is another step toward realizing my vision and priorities for Cook County,” she said. “It includes no new taxes, fees or fines.”

“This budget builds on the considerable progress we’ve made during my eight years in office to reform and reshape Cook County into a government that truly serves all of its residents — whether you’re from Evanston or Englewood, Pullman or Palatine, you can expect a government working for you,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday before a packed County Board room.

But one Preckwinkle critic called the budget “smoke and mirrors” that has more to do with her mayoral run than sound fiscal stewardship.

Cook County employees will likely get to keep their jobs for now because of an unexpected growth in revenue, according to Preckwinkle’s $5.9 billion budget recommendation for fiscal year 2019. That’s an increase of $712.2 million from the 2018 fiscal year, with about $647.3 million of that coming from the health fund.

Combined, revenues for the general fund and the health enterprise fund, which make up the county’s operating fund, exceeded projected numbers by roughly $46 million and $58 million, respectively. That helped close up the roughly $82 million hole county officials projected they’d have to fill for 2019, according to the proposed budget.

Those new revenues, which are partly comprised of a growth in revenue from the sales tax and more property tax dollars being available to the general fund as well as more residents joining the county’s Medicaid expansion program, CountyCare — for the health fund — helped close the shortfall. But the CountyCare program also accounts for 58 percent of expenditures for the health enterprise fund.

The county’s chief financial officer, Ammar Rizki, said that banking on the continued growth of CountyCare to generate revenue for the health fund is a “strategic sort of view” given the county’s “commitment to be the safety net provider in this area.”

“We want to provide quality healthcare for Cook County residents,” Rizki said. “Yes, there has been an increase, a very large increase, and you can say the associated risks are large, too, but that’s where the health system is keenly focused: to make sure those folks do get the right level of care that they need.”

But there are things that could go wrong and stem the flow of revenue the county is seeing. If a recession hits, that could stem the growth in sales tax revenue the county is seeing. As for the health fund, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, especially the Medicaid expansion piece of the act, that could stop revenue from coming in for the health fund.

If the state struggles to keep up with its reimbursements to the county as it has in the past, that could also hurt the revenue flow the county is currently seeing, Rizki said.

While pleased that there would be no new taxes, fines or fees, Commissioner Richard Boykin called the budget “smoke and mirrors” and “more trick than treat” because the county should have known there would be an abundance of revenue.

“This is a budget basically because she’s running for mayor, and it’s one that sounds good, looks good, but quite frankly we need to have an independent budget authority outside of the president’s office, because if we had that authority we would know that we would have additional tax revenue from sales tax, and we would know that we wouldn’t have to take votes on an awful beverage tax that she put on the table that we didn’t need.”

Preckwinkle called the Oak Park Democrat’s statement “ridiculous.”

Commissioner Larry Suffredin described it as a budget he’d expect Preckwinkle to push even if she weren’t running for mayor because others on the board still face challengers in November.

“Today was a positive statement, but until we really understand the numbers for each of the offices, and to make sure they have enough to meet their missions, I’m not in a position to say this will fly through,” Suffredin said.

Preckwinkle said the 2019 budget supports her dedication to criminal justice, health care and county residents.

When she joined the increasingly crowded mayoral race last month, Preckwinkle touted reforms to the county’s jail and hospital system as just a few of her qualifications.

In June, Preckwinkle said the officials had their “work cut out” for them when preliminary projections were released.

The budget Preckwinkle presented Wednesday still lacks new revenue sources to keep up with county spending, and with a lack of political appetite on the board to create new revenue sources its unlikely that the next budget will have new revenue either.

The most recent revenue source introduced was the county’s controversial sweetened beverage tax. After repealing the so-called pop tax, commissioners faced a $200 million deficit for 2018.

Now that Preckwinkle has made her recommendation, the county’s various departments will have hearings with the Finance Committee over the course of the next two weeks.

Then, in November, the budget — in its current state or with budget-neutral amendments — heads to the board for approval. The goal is to have a budget approved before Dec. 1, the start of the 2019 fiscal year.