ENDORSEMENT: Toni Preckwinkle for Cook County Board president in Dem primary
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Toni Preckwinkle made her name as Cook County Board president by making sure the one-cent sales tax increase enacted by her predecessor, Todd Stroger, got fully eliminated. The tax cut, which signaled a shift from the county’s wasteful ways, elated both voters and businesses.
Since then, the going has been rougher for Preckwinkle. Citing the county’s ballooning pension obligations, she led a successful effort in 2015 to reverse course and restore the penny-per-dollar sales tax increase. And facing a budget shortfall last year, she led the charge to enact a widely disliked penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax that later was rescinded.
Preckwinkle, who is running for her third term, also has raised eyebrows as she has continued to support beleaguered County Assessor Joseph Berrios, who has padded the county payroll with relatives, repeatedly fought with the county ethics board and overseen a system of property tax assessments that is heavily and shamefully skewed against lower-income homeowners. Though Berrios and Preckwinkle are political allies — he’s chairman of the Cook County Democrats and she’s co-executive vice chairman — we sure wish she’d get back to her good-government roots and tell Berrios that’s a miserable way to treat the taxpayers.
Yet Preckwinkle’s willingness to doggedly tackle the county’s toughest issues earns her our endorsement in the March 20 Democratic primary for another four years in the job. She has not only taken on the tough jobs, but also has gotten results. Her challenger, former Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti, has not explained how he could do better.
From the moment Preckwinkle showed up at the County Building, she has campaigned to reduce the number of people at the County Jail awaiting trial, often for nonviolent crimes. Not everyone in the county’s criminal justice system signed on at first, but Preckwinkle stayed the course.
The results are in, and they are excellent. The jail’s daily pretrial population has dropped from more that 10,000 when she took office to fewer than 6,000 as more people are released on electronic monitoring and recognizance bonds, which has allowed the county to raze the jail’s two oldest divisions and prepare to demolish two more this year. That prevents people from sitting in jail just because they can’t afford bail and saves taxpayers a significant amount of money on building maintenance, staffing and other costs.
Preckwinkle, whose job also makes her head of the county Forest Preserve District, also has tackled the county’s underfunded pension system. Her reform legislation has stalled in Springfield, partly due to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s opposition, but she is using revenue from the sales tax increase to stop the county from accruing additional pension obligations at a rate of $1 million a day, a bill county taxpayers would have to pay eventually. Cook County is one of the few major governmental bodies in Illinois that still has an investment-grade credit rating.
Preckwinkle also has worked to make county government more efficient. Since becoming president, she has reduced the county’s work force by 14 percent and its indebtedness by 11 percent. Those are especially notable achievements given that the county has 11 separately elected officials, each with his or her own budget demands, and the state has cut its support for local governments.
Under Preckwinkle, the county’s health care system is far stronger. Boosted by the Affordable Care Act, which means more patients have insurance, the health care system was in the black in 2015 and 2016 for the first time in 180 years.
Preckwinkle has failed the homeowners of Cook County by declining to use the powers of her office — the bully pulpit and the budget — to compel Berrios to create a more equitable property tax assessment system. But her record as County Board president is otherwise strong, even enlightened, and she easily deserves another term in office. Maybe she’ll even remember who she is and fix the property tax mess.
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