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Layoffs, cutting vacant jobs all part of Preckwinkle’s $6.9 billion budget plan to ride out COVID-19 storm

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday is expected to recommend cutting 659 vacant positions — 300 of them in the sheriff’s office. County health officials are eying up to 130 layoffs, but hoping the final number is half that.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle attends a news conference at Cook County Health’s Professional Building in July.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle attends a news conference at Cook County Health’s Professional Building in July.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Cook County officials plan to propose a $6.9 billion budget Thursday, closing a $409.2 million shortfall through a mix of layoffs, cutting vacant positions and tapping into reserves to effectively weather the long feared “rainy day” elected officials always worry about.

In the recommendation that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is expected to unveil for the county’s general operating budget, 659 vacant positions — 300 of them in the sheriff’s office — are slated to be cut as part of a plan to close a gap of $222.2 million.

At Cook County Health, 130 people could be laid off as part of a proposed plan to address a separate $187 million budget deficit, though officials say the number of layoffs could wind up being half that by the time the spending plan is final.

County budget officials said Wednesday they face a “unique challenge” due to the pandemic, but residents can expect to see no new taxes, though “nominal” increases in some fees are expected to bring in an aggregate of $2 million in three main areas — the medical examiner’s office, building and zoning and environmental control.

The ultimate impact of COVID-19 on the budget is still uncertain, but Ammar Rizki, the county’s chief financial officer, said he and others on the financial team are “projecting, basically a square root recovery.”

Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar M. Rizki addresses the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2019.
Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar M. Rizki addresses the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2019.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“Our hope is that, by summer of next year, the recovery goes back into Phase Five [of the state reopening plan] where now we can go safely back into stadiums, concerts — and things like that are back in play” and generating tax revenue, Rizki said. “So, that is that is what we’re assuming, 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.”

Along with cutting the vacant positions, Preckwinkle and her team are also proposing reducing non-personnel costs, such as travel and training for employees, into next year to address the $222.2 million gap in the general fund, which covers the offices of the sheriff, state’s attorney, assessor, chief judge and clerk to name a few.

Revenues from tax-increment-financing districts in Chicago, a rise in projected revenue from the county’s sales tax, as well as $50 million in reimbursements from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and $76.8 million from the county’s reserves also helped close the gap.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, joined by several members of Congress, including (from left) Raja Krishnamoorthi, Robin Kelly and Bobby Rush, at a news conference last year.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, joined by several members of Congress, including (from left) Raja Krishnamoorthi, Robin Kelly and Bobby Rush, at a news conference last year.
Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times file

Addressing the proposed layoffs in Cook County Health, Andrea Gibson, the health system’s interim chief business officer, said she thinks the number will “end up being about half that” based on “available vacancies, some resignations and retirements” that have happened and they likely won’t know a final number until late November.

The proposed county budget doesn’t rely on any additional federal funding.

Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a similar assumption — though she may have to turn to tax increases and budget cuts, including layoffs, furlough days and pay cuts to bridge the city’s $1.2 billion budget gap, top mayoral aides have said.

Preckwinkle will unveil her budget recommendation to the public and commissioners at a special meeting Thursday morning. Commissioners will likely vote on the budget Nov. 24.