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Preckwinkle touts ‘hard work, difficult decisions’ behind $6.2B budget — but health of county and patients spark worries

There were 15 amendments to the budget Preckwinkle unveiled last month, accounting for roughly an additional $22 million in spending.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in March.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in March. File Photo.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The Cook County Board overwhelmingly approved a nearly $6.2 billion budget Thursday, over the objections of one holdout commissioner who warned that “rate of growth and spending is not sustainable for the long term fiscal health” of the county.

The budget was balanced with no layoffs or tax increases and even added some employees working on taxpayer appeals of property assessments and expunging past cannabis convictions. But the spending blueprint did cut 638 vacant health care positions, despite an emergency nurse’s warning that those cuts “hurt my patients.”

Despite the ripples of dissent, the board voted 15-1, with one absence, to approve its fiscal plan for next year. Preckwinkle said it was the result of years of effort while she’s been at the helm of the county.

“This budget builds on years of hard work, difficult decisions, hard votes and fiscally responsible steps we’ve taken in Cook County,” Preckwinkle said.

“Doing what’s right and responsible isn’t always easy.”

There were 15 amendments to the budget Preckwinkle unveiled last month, accounting for roughly an additional $22 million in spending.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is self-isolating after a member of her security detail tested positive for COVID-19, her office announced April 7, 2020.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. File Photo.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

Some of those amendments were technical, but some put part of the county’s projected $9 million tax-increment-financing surplus toward measures such as the county’s initiative to translate next year’s election ballots into two additional languages, Tagalog and Korean.

One of the other 15 amendments will take money from a county special purpose fund to create a program that would provide up to two schools with solar paneled roofs. Participating schools “would build a STEM program around the solar paneled roofs to encourage more children to join engineering, environmental sciences, and other STEM programs. The solar panels will provide an educational component by allowing students to track the energy generated and saved as a result of the solar panels.”

Another creates a pilot program to work with survivors of domestic and sexual assault “to provide more victim-centered and trauma-informed care,” according to a description of the program.

Commissioner Sean Morrison was the sole ‘no’ vote on the budget. He said the county hadn’t done enough to address its unfunded pension liabilities and other legacy debts. He also voiced concerns about the health system’s financial condition.

“This rate of growth and spending is not sustainable for the long term fiscal health of our county, and it is not fair to cook county taxpayers — we can do better and we should strive to do better,” Morrison said.

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison in 2017.
Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison at County Board meeting in 2017. File Photo.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

“Our county has seen an exodus of residents leaving more than any other county in the U.S. We should stop and think about that for a moment and ask ‘are we doing our very best to stem that tide and reverse the negative impact of the trend?’ I don’t believe the growth and spending of the 2020 budget will help address this serious issue.”

Preckwinkle found Morrison’s comments “ironic” because he “didn’t support our efforts to stabilize our pension system in the first place.”

Morrison didn’t know what Preckwinkle was refering to, saying “that’s a preposterous statement.”

Riding high from a successful legislative session in Springfield, Preckwinkle’s June preliminary budget included revenue from the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, the Illinois Gaming Act, the Sports Wagering Act and the Online Sales Tax. But delays in rolling out some of those taxes prompted the county to lower its expected revenues.

The 2020 budget was also balanced by cutting 638 vacant positions within the health fund. Those positions included nurses and patient care coordinators.

Consuelo Vargas, a registered nurse in the emergency room at Stroger Hospital, advised against cutting the vacancies in the health system.

“It doesn’t take a health care professional to see how cutting nursing positions in the ER will prolong wait times, how cutting trauma nurses will lead to fewer lives being saved, how fewer bedside nurses will lead to more preventable infections and bed sores,” Vargas told the board. “These proposed cuts are not only immoral because they hurt my patients, but they ultimately won’t solve the structural [limitations] of the health system, in fact they will likely make the budget situation worse.”

Dr. John Jay Shannon, the CEO of Cook County Health, said wait times hadn’t gone up and the health system believes its strategies to address community needs will help reduce the reliance on its emergency services.

“We’re always concerned that as challenges go up, and other places are not taking care of people who’ve presented them, that meeting those needs — not only in the emergency room but really across the entire healthcare systems — are going to be the challenge,” Shannon said. “We firmly believe that continuing the strategies that we’ve put in place to try to get services upstream and out in the community should over time, decrease the reliance of people on our emergency services.”