On Feb. 21, Bridget Gainer appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked her why she’s running for re-election as Cook County commissioner in the 10th District. After winning the March primary, Gainer’s running uncontested in the November general election.
Here are her responses to our editorial board questionnaire.
The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget.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.
Gainer: I have consistently voted for balanced budgets during my tenure as a Cook County Commissioner. This year we came together as a Board to fill the budget gap created by the repeal of the sweetened beverage tax, a tax that I was opposed from the onset. Through collaboration and negotiation, we were able to maintain services at the hospital and criminal justice system without raising taxes.
After a sales tax at the county, property tax at the city and income tax at the state, we need to find a balance between the county budget and a healthy economy. There are layoffs, furlough days and deferral of projects. As for my part, I will be cutting my own budget in excess of the amount merited by the repealed beverage tax.
But there are troubling signs ahead – the budget was balanced on several kinds of one-time savings – many that cannot be repeated. So our duty and opportunity over the next year is to start this process now. The good news is this board has shown more collaboration this budget season than I have seen in a long time. I pledge to find more cost savings measures and to work with my colleagues on future budgets that balance between those who use our services, those who provide them, and those who pay for them.
Who is Bridget Gainer?
She’s running for: Cook County commissioner, 10th district
Her political/civic background: Cook County Commissioner since 2009. I have been board member at various organizations – Women Employed, Center for Economic Progress, Big Shoulders, the Campaign for Drivers Licenses for Undocumented, Founding the Cook County Land bank, founding Off the Sidelines/Cause the Effect, created the Chicago Apprentice Network
Her occupation: Cook County Commissioner, 10th District; Vice President of Global Affairs at Aon
Her education: Undergrad at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; MBA at University of Chicago
Campaign website: http://www.bridgetgainer.com/
Recent news: Bridget Gainer
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?
Gainer: As Chair of the Workforce and Housing Committee at the County the repeal of the Affordable Care Act has been at the forefront of my work as a Commissioner. This past year, I worked with my colleagues at the City Council to hold the first ever joint hearing on the impact of a potential Affordable Care Act repeal. We heard from providers, community stakeholders and patients about the detrimental effects a repeal would have for the County and City budget and the overall health of our citizens.
In order to prepare for more cuts to the ACA, the County created CountyCare, which enabled the expansion of affordable healthcare to an additional 400,000 residents in Cook County. This is just one cost saving measure that has also expanded healthcare coverage throughout the County. As Republicans continue their crusade against the ACA, we will continue to work towards solutions, such as expanding managed care systems, that ensure the health of our residents.
What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
Gainer: There are some functions – public health, jail, courts – that only government can do and private involvement often invites abuse. Then there are some that require specialized expertise or equipment that is difficult to source or one time or infrequent enough not to merit investment. Those are the types of services or functions best outsourced.
There are others in the middle that can seem attractive for outsourcing, but we need to be rigorous in making the delineation and insure that outsourcing improves services and doesn’t just cut costs.
Every department should perform this exercise before they out source for convenience, because in this case, convenience is almost always more expensive.
The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
Gainer: By last count, the State currently owes the County around $137 million. This is a sizable amount of money that is largely owed to the healthcare system and the courts. It is unfortunate that the County, other levels of government, and citizens suffer due to a budget standoff that crippled the State for over a year. Now that a budget has been passed, I encourage the state, and the administration continue to make payments in good faith since late payments ultimately cost the taxpayer more in the long run.
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?
Gainer: TIF Districts are a classic example of a double edged sword – yes they can spur development, but they have migrated far from their original intent. They have potential to transform blighted areas but can also take advantage of a loosely defined definition of “blight” and miss providing the development that some of the hardest hit neighborhoods so desperately need.
Seeing the lack of actual development in our neighborhoods and a declining rate of home ownership on the South and West sides, I created the Cook County Land Bank as a neighborhood development tool. Since its’ creation in 2013, the Land Bank has become the region’s most comprehensive response to reduce the amount and impact of vacant land and abandoned buildings throughout Cook County. The Land Bank, which does not cost taxpayers a dime, takes abandoned and vacant properties, clears government red tape and uses local developers to redevelop the properties for resale. With over 200 homes redeveloped and sold to date, the Land Bank has become a neighborhood redevelopment tool that has shown great promise where TIF districts have fallen short.
Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
Gainer: Given the increase in property taxes from the city and general increases in taxation at all levels, I believe that we have to hold the line on the 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?
Gainer: As with every line item in the budget, merging unincorporated areas must be examined as a potential inefficiency that can be eliminated. Currently, the County highway department maintains unincorporated roads that overlap with roads already maintained by another level of government, resulting in inefficiencies that can be eliminated by working with local municipalities.
What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
Gainer: Economic development cannot happen in a vacuum it must be coupled with a healthy workforce, neighborhood revitalization, and a friendly business environment. This is why I passed paid sick leave, created the Cook County Land Bank and introduced apprenticeships back to the County.
The Landbank, focuses on two missions that spur development, insure it is shared equally and done in a way that is financially sustainable: we sell homes to developers who are committed to home ownership, we insure that our developer base is diverse and reflective of the community and we use no taxpayer funds.
Four years and over 200 homes later, 75% of the homes we have redeveloped have been sold for homeownership and we have over 190 developers, the majority of whom are African American or Latino and that is growing. It’s not enough to have development, it has to be accessible to all.
To that end I have also created an apprentice program in financial services which started with a class of 25 in partnership with Harold Washington last year. Throughout the year we recruited other firms – Accenture, Walgreens, Rush and our 2018 class is over 100. The majority of these young people are CPS graduates and from communities that don’t often find a way into corporate jobs. Like the land bank, the Chicago Apprentice Network is meeting a true market need and does not rely on grants or government funding.
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?
Gainer: The County is currently going over plans to ensure the implications of this bold plan that will protect our environment for generations. Bonds, environmental grants, and collaborative solutions, the County will work to realize the goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan.
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?
Gainer: While our Forest Preserves should be accessible and affordable as possible for our residents to enjoy, charging a fee is something that is worth looking at in order to ensure that the County can continue to maintain the Forest Preserves. There are currently fees charged for rental of properties and parking at the Brookfield Zoo, and this has not resulted in a detrimental effect to its uses.
Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
Gainer: As the largest forest preserve in the county, the Cook County Forest Preserve must be protected for the health of our residents for generations to come. Recent work be the Forest Preserve and the Friends of Forest Preserves has resulted in fruitful collaborations and long term plans such as the Next Century Conservation Plan. A case must be made that the preserves would be better protected and that it wouldn’t add another duplicitous layer of government in order for this proposal to gain my support.
Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
Gainer: The County, and dozens of social service providers and mental health services are owed millions of dollars from the state. This is not a matter of fairness, as all counties are in this boat.
Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
Gainer: Yes, as the bill we developed in collaboration with labor has yet to be heard. As the Chair of the County Pension Committee, I have studied this issue closely and hold hearings to ensure that we are meeting our obligations. To keep the public engaged in pension proposals, I created an open-data pension website (OpenPensions.org) where press, the public and County employees could go for details on plans and proposals. The result was a working group of labor and government officials who drafted one of the state’s first collaborative pension reform bills.
I pledge to continue to work collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure that we are on stable footing going forward and that all voices are heard on future pension plans.
Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
Gainer: No one in my family has a County job and the hiring of relatives breeds public mistrust of government.
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