Cook County Board president Toni Preckwindkle is running uncontested in the November general election – and is now also running for mayor in the 2019 election.
Before the March primary, the Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking nominations for Cook County Board president a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the county. Preckwinkle submitted the following responses:
The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget. Can county government now claim an appropriate balance of revenue and services, or will more revenue or more cost-cutting be necessary? Please be specific as to where new revenue might come from, or where further cuts could be made.
Preckwinkle: As President, my job is to make tough choices. But it also my job to represent my constituents and it’s clear there is very little willingness for additional taxes. The stark reality is that without revenue, there will be cuts. However, of the County’s $3 billion operating budget, only eight percent is under my direct control. Therefore, in order to make effective, strategic cuts moving forward, it will require collaboration.
As President I’ve implemented the first County-wide performance management initiative in the County’s history. It has been critical in building our budgets, streamlining our services and holding ourselves accountable. However, there is more than can be done – specifically a desk audit to bring more transparency and accountability to line items and employee positions across the county.
One of the initiatives of which I’m most proud is the reduction of the pre-trial jail population by over 30 percent. This, in turn, has led us to begin the important work of reducing the size of the jail campus, one of the largest expenses within the criminal justice system at roughly $300 million per year. When demolition at the jail campus began in November 2016, we estimated the savings at roughly $1.3 million in annual operating costs and avoidance over $172 million in required capital improvement costs. Not only do we need to continue to decrease the jail population and campus, we need to align the jail staff with these decreases. In recent years, while both the population and campus has been consistently declining, the staff within the jail has actually been increasing. I would look to work with the Sheriff to develop a concrete plan and timeline to streamline staffing in line with our broader reform efforts.
Who is Toni Preckwinkle?
She’s running for: Cook County board president (and mayor of Chicago) Her background: Alderman of 4th ward from 1991-2010, then won race to become President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2010. Also serves as chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. Her occupation: President, Cook County Board of Commissioners Her education: Completed Bachelors and Masters degrees from the University of Chicago Campaign website: tonipreckwinkle.org Twitter: @ToniPreckwinkle Recent news: Toni Preckwinkle
If the Affordable Care Act is eliminated or curtailed, what would you propose doing to keep the county’s Health and Hospitals System on sound financial footing?
Preckwinkle:My current focus is doing everything I can to prevent this from happening. The ACA has been a godsend to Cook County. Prior to my taking office, local taxpayers were paying roughly $400 million a year towards the provision of public health care. If Medicaid is stripped at the federal level, Cook County could stand to lose between $300 and $800 million. Several times a year, Dr. Shannon and I travel to Washington D.C. to meet with Illinois Congressional delegation and talk with them about the importance of the Affordable Care Act.
There is no easy answer if the ACA is eliminated. The Cook County Health and Hospital System is 50% of the budget – without the ACA we would be challenged to deliver care to our patients and balance our budget.
What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
Preckwinkle: I do not support the privatization of public services – I believe in holding government and its employees accountable. As President, I instituted the first County-wide performance management system to demand more accountability from our operations and our employees. For the first time, the County has a forum in which departments and separately elected officials can work together to set priorities, identify opportunities, address problems and measure performance. It has also resulted in tens of millions of dollars in either increased revenue or decreased costs to taxpayers.
The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
Preckwinkle: Elect a new governor. The primary responsibility for securing a balanced budget lies with the Executive. The Governor’s lack of respect for local government cost Cook County millions of dollars over several years. For examples, see my answer to the question about whether or not the county is being treated fairly by the state below.
What is your position on tax-increment financing districts? Are they a valuable development tool? Are they underutilized? Is the process sufficiently transparent? Should there be more community input? Should the definition of a “blighted” area be revised?
Preckwinkle: As Alderman of the 4th Ward, I created TIF districts to support CHA redevelopment, affordable housing projects and retail strip investment. The County does not create TIFs.
Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
Preckwinkle: Cook County already has a de facto freeze in place – property taxes have not been raised in over 20 years.. I don’t see this changing as, in my seven years as President, there has been no political appetite for raising property taxes.
Do you support or oppose efforts to merge unincorporated pockets of the county into adjoining municipalities? If so, how would you make that happen?
Preckwinkle: Yes. Roughly 2.1% of the County’s 5.28 million population live in unincorporated Cook County. Currently, Cook County spends considerable resources on the provision of services, such as building/zoning permits and inspections and the provision of police patrol services, to unincorporated areas and residents. These services represent the types of services that the 98% of County residents who live in municipalities receive from their local municipal government.
However, the revenues from unincorporated areas do not fully cover the costs and the financial gap that remains must be covered by general County revenues, which are paid by incorporated and unincorporated residents alike. Recently, the Civic Federation put this gap at roughly $18 million annually. This is money that could be allocated to the County’s primary functions.
That is why I support the annexation of unincorporated areas of Cook County by adjacent municipalities. However, I’m also aware of the infrastructure challenge this presents given the wide range of geography, size and socio-economic make up of unincorporated areas. Therefore, potential annexation with adjacent areas, faces a significant challenge: infrastructure. In many cases, there simply aren’t the resources necessary to make the infrastructure upgrades to facilitate annexation.
That is why I created a Cook County Unincorporated Task Force to develop an annexation action plan. As part of my FY2013 budget, I launched the Unincorporated Cook Infrastructure Improvement Fund (UCIIF) to allow municipalities to apply for matching grants to complete important infrastructure improvements in the areas they agree to annex. In June of 2016 the Cook County Board passed the rental licensing ordinance to protect public health, safety and welfare of the people living in unincorporated Cook County. The Department of Building and zoning aims to ensure residential rental units comply with minimum standards of habitation, occupancy, construction maintenance and with the building zoning codes adopted by Cook County. The ordinance would allow inspection of individual units in multi-family complexes (i.e., buildings with four or more units).
We believe there are approximately 7,099 units in unincorporated Cook County, including condominium units.
What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
Preckwinkle: Public health and public safety have long been the cornerstones of Cook County government. I’ve always believed that you had to add economic development to that list.
Historically, most public dollars spent on economic development activities were designed to retain or attract individual businesses, through tax breaks, grants, infrastructure investments, regulatory relief and other tools to support businesses. When I was elected, these functions were scattered and uncoordinated. I created a Bureau of Economic Development to establish sound criteria and identify new ways for using these economic development tools. For example, we recently developed and passed legislation so that any business receiving a tax incentive from Cook County had to first turn to the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership (the Partnership) for any future hiring or training needs.
Additionally, shortly after I was elected as President of the Cook County Board, I created a Council of Economic Advisors, chaired by John Rogers, of Ariel Investments, and Will Osborn, formerly of The Northern Trust, and consisting of business and civic leaders, to help me better understand our economy and how we might improve it. One of the most important ways Cook County can spur economic development is by realizing it doesn’t stop at borders and, instead, facilitating a regional conservation and strategy. To that end, I convened the first regional economic development forum in December 2013, bringing together private and public leadership, including the City of Chicago and Chairs of the collar counties.
These regular meetings have evolved into a formal organization. We hired an Executive Director in 2017, Tom Hulseman, and we have several successful initiatives underway, including streamlining the antiquated truck permitting system, helping small and medium size businesses export and partnering with the Brookings Institution to attract and leverage Foreign Direct Investment in the region.
One of our earliest and most successful initiatives is the Chicago Metro Metal Consortium, which has leveraged $36 million in new resources to support metal working firms. Furthermore, 173 firms have reported a combined $279 million in aggregate impact (sales increases, investment and cost savings), including the creation of 400 jobs and retention of 1,100 jobs.
An additional $40 million per year is needed to fund the Forest Preserve District’s Next Century Conservation Plan. Where can the county find the money?
Preckwinkle: The Forest Preserves is fully capable of preparing the responsible financial plan to raise the funds needed to accomplish this vision. In my Next Century Conservation Plan I outlined several of the steps we are undertaking, or will undertake. These actions include identifying resources through implementing market-based fees for special purposes (such as facility rentals) and pursuing public-private partnerships and sponsorships in collaboration with the Forest Preserve Foundation. Partnerships have long been a key to FPDCC success.
We are also aggressively pursuing regional, state and federal government grants. I am also committed to issue new bonds to fund well-planned capital expenditures for new acquisitions and restoration.
Traditionally, the Forest Preserve District has not charged for parking in the preserves, but it is considering doing so at Swallow Cliff Woods. Do you support that?
Preckwinkle: As part of the Next Century Conservation plan, we have improved the already popular Swallow Cliff, spending $2.5 million to add a new set of stairs, in order to create a completed loop for fitness enthusiasts, and a beautiful new environmentally friendly pavilion.
While we want families to take full advantage of the nearly 70,000 acres of open space, we need to make sure our financial plan appropriately recovers the costs necessary to uphold our mission and maintain our amenities. We are looking at pursuing a modest parking fee at Swallow Cliff Woods.
Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
Preckwinkle: No. There is no gain in adding a separate Board. According to the Civic Federation, which has highlighted this point numerous times, Illinois has more local units of government than any other state. The total number of local governments reported varies based on the source used by the reporting agency. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Census of Governments tallies Illinois’ local governments units at 6,963. The State of Illinois Comptroller lists a total of 8,516 local governments as of May 2016. The most recent data available from the Illinois Department of Revenue lists the total number of local government at 6,038 as of 2015. Closer to home, the Illinois Comptroller’s site states Cook County and its collar counties contain nearly 1,300 local government units, approximately 15% of the State’s total. This only makes government expensive and inefficient. Adding an additional Board for the Forest Preserves only allows for an already overwhelmed electorate to have to decipher additional candidates for office.
I am proud to serve as the President of the Cook County Board as well as the Forest Preserves. They are two separate but equally important responsibilities – neither has suffered due to the existence of the other. Since taking office, the Forest Preserves have conducted significant efforts to improve operational and staff accountability, increase transparency with the Board and the public and developed award-winning strategic plans for conservation, recreation and accessibility. Another Board only adds an additional level of bureaucracy
Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
Preckwinkle: Governor Rauner doesn’t understand local government and as a result has pursued a variety of actions to our detriment. The largest impact has been the state’s recent decision to renege on Medicaid member per person/per month reimbursement levels, which cost the County $36 million in 2016 and $78 million in 2017 for a total impact of $114 million (a figure greater than the County’s annual allocation to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System). Additionally, last year the state decided to charge on local units of government to collect the sales tax. It now costs us $14 million to collect our funds from the state.
Other punitive measures include the 10% reduction of the Local Government Distributive Fund (LGDF), which we receive to cover services for unincorporated Cook and the decision to recalculate the Personal Property Replacement Tax Fund at a cost of $5 million to the County.
Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
Preckwinkle: I remain supportive of progressive pension reform. We lobbied for two years for our pension reform proposal, which included important measures such as enabling Cook County and its employees to contribute more money as well as raising retirement ages. We secured the support of two-thirds of our union leadership. And while our proposal imposed no cost to the State, we could not secure support in the General Assembly. This is why we had to make the tough decision to raise the sales tax so as not to continue accruing $1 million a day in additional pension liability.
Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
Preckwinkle: None of my relatives hold a county job and I’ve stated numerous times that I oppose the practice of hiring family members and that it is inappropriate to do so.
Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, the Sun-Times is teaming up weekly with the Better Government Association, in print and online, to fact-check the truthfulness of the candidates. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.