A Cook County budget built to ‘weather the storm’ — but the rain had better be moving on

The coronavirus played a big part in gouging a $409.2 million hole. But Toni Preckwinkle vows to maintain services, expand healthcare and not raise property taxes.

SHARE A Cook County budget built to ‘weather the storm’ — but the rain had better be moving on
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s 2021 budget promises no tax hikes.

Sun-Times file photo

Since the pandemic first swept in, we have argued that it’s important for local governments to continue functioning as normally as possible.

That’s a tall order given how COVID-19 has driven up costs and decimated tax revenues. But a government that can’t provide essential services now — when those services are most needed — is failing in its basic responsibilities.

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We’re encouraged, so far, by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposed $6.9 billion county budget for 2021, presented to the public on Thursday.

The coronavirus played a big part in gouging a $409.2 million hole into the budget. But Preckwinkle nonetheless proposes to maintain services and even expand healthcare without raising property taxes.

In a budget address delivered remotely, Preckwinkle said the strain on the county finances this year has been “worse than any rainy day we feared” but the county will weather the “storm.”

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that responsible elected officials prepare for hard times long before storm clouds form. When Preckwinkle first took office 10 years ago, the county government’s rainy day fund was a modest $40 million. She has since built up the fund, year after year, to a healthy $400 million. This allows her now to tap those reserves for $77 million to shore up the 2021 budget.

Preckwinkle’s administration also proposes to close out 659 currently vacant positions and possibly lay off 130 employees at Cook County Health, a threat that immediately alarmed Teamsters Local 743, which represents some of the targeted workers.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not the time to remove these crucial jobs and critical health care resources from the people who are most vulnerable and most at risk,” said Teamsters Local 743 President Debra Simmons-Peterson.

Painful cuts, yes. But imagine how much worse things could be. The pandemic has hammered the local economy, even as federal aid has been limited.

“We refused to balance this budget on the backs of the residents and businesses who need resources the most,” Preckwinkle said. “Especially during a pandemic.”

Tough times, but less-so for counties

Across the country, the budgets of large counties like Cook have been faring better under the coronavirus.

David Berry, director of the budget in Harris County, Texas, which contains the city of Houston, said last month that the virus had left his county’s finances “much less rosy” but still “manageable.” The county is even considering a modest property tax cut.

Los Angeles County faced a $37.6 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2020-2021 and warned of massive layoffs. But layoffs were avoided, in part, by requiring every department to cut spending by 8%.

Cook County has received $429 million in federal stimulus funds. Much of that money was applied to a budget shortfall for this year and to helping out the suburbs. The county plans to put another $50 million of that cash toward the 2021 budget.

Wrinkle in the plan

The biggest wrinkle in the proposed plan is that it calls on the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to cut 300 staff positions by attrition.

That cut would seem to be understandable given that the county jail houses far fewer detainees now, in no small part due to monitored releases intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 at the jail. But in an August report, the non-profit Coalition to End Money Bond reported that the jail’s population is bumping up again, from a low of 4,031 in May to 5,159 in September.

“The elimination of the positions are significant,” Sheriff Tom Dart said in a statement, but “all county agencies are facing similar hardships.”

It’s too early to understand the full possible ramifications of next year’s proposed county budget, but for now we’d say it points to the wisdom of resisting the easy quick fix, like selling off the Chicago Skyway.

Expanded services, including health care

We’re also glad to see a plan that, hard times or not, actually provides for an expansion of some county services.

The county’s healthcare and hospital system is to receive an additional $40 million, allowing it to create a new 12-chair kidney dialysis center, expand diagnostic services such as CT scans and upgrade radiology rooms and MRIs.

A county clinic in Woodlawn and another clinic on the Near South Side are to be moved into Provident Hospital of Cook County. And Preckwinkle said plans are moving forward on a new $200 million Provident Hospital.

Wait’ll next year

Preckwinkle’s budget is premised on an assumption that no further federal stimulus money will be forthcoming, and that’s certainly prudent. But we should all be a little nervous. This is a budget that gambles significantly on a strong local economic recovery next summer.

“So that is what what we are assuming,” Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki said. “But it could go really badly from there. Or it could be better than that, depending on how the vaccine comes on — and there's a lot of other factors.”

That’s a mighty big “if.”

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