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Red ink fading under ‘recovery?’ Cook County expects smaller $121 million budget shortfall and no new taxes — ‘at this time’

County officials on Wednesday laid out their preliminary forecasts for the remainder of the 2021 fiscal year and projections for the upcoming budget year, which actually begins Dec. 1. No layoffs or new taxes are in the mix at this point.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle speaks tat a news conference in Maywood in March
Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle speaks tat a news conference in Maywood in March.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Cook County officials on Wednesday released a slightly brighter budget forecast for next year, projecting a roughly $121 million gap for the upcoming fiscal year with no new taxes, fines or fees — so far.

Asked if county residents could see new versions of those revenue sources — or increases in existing ones — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said “not at this time.”

“However, it remains to be seen where we’ll end up in our formal budget presentation, but not at this time,” Preckwinkle said.

Any updates to those revenue decisions are likely to come later in the county’s budgeting process for the looming fiscal year.

No layoffs are in the mix at this point, either.

The $121.4 million gap is the total deficit of the county’s two funds.

County officials on Wednesday laid out their preliminary forecasts for the remainder of the 2021 fiscal year and projections for the upcoming budget year, which actually begins Dec. 1.

The general fund — which supports such offices as those of the Cook County sheriff, state’s attorney and chief judge as well as pensions and other fixed charges — faces a shortfall of $60.3 million in preliminary fiscal forecasts.

That’s largely due to expenses related to natural growth in salaries and wages and other personnel costs exceeding the revenues the county is pulling in as the economy rebounds from the pandemic.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in the Illinois Medical District last August.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in the Illinois Medical District last August.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The health fund, which makes up the other part of the county’s budget and covers Cook County Health and its operations, projects a $61.1 million deficit for fiscal year 2022.

Expenses in that fund are also outpacing revenues coming in.

The county’s health system oversees Stroger and Provident hospitals as well as health care at Cook County Jail and other county sites. It also conducts a managed-care program called CountyCare.

Andrea Gibson, the health system’s interim chief business officer, said membership for CountyCare is “exceeding expectations” at a little over 400,000 people.

Then Cook County Budget Director Andrea Gibson in 2013.
Then Cook County Budget Director Andrea Gibson in 2013.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

That membership growth has brought in revenue for the county, but has also driven additional expense claims.

It was not immediately clear how officials would use the $1 billion allocated directly to the county from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The county’s finance team plans to go into detail on how those dollars will be used on Thursday.

Overall, the 2022 forecast is better than the one county officials unveiled last summer, when Preckwinkle and her finance team said they were putting “everything on the table” to close a projected $409 million shortfall, the second highest budget gap since the Hyde Park Democrat took office in 2010.

The county closed that expected gap through a mix of layoffs, cutting vacant positions and tapping into reserves. This year, Preckwinkle said the county does not anticipate having to lay off employees.

Annette Guzman, the county’s director of budget and management services, said in the middle of the pandemic last year there was so much uncertainty that “making any types of decisions about our budgeting” was “challenging.”

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

But thanks to new data, better forecasts and the decline in the coronavirus crisis, she thinks the county has “a little bit more certainty about our revenue sources in order to kind of align that with how we want to invest and where we want out our expenditures to go.”

Ammar Rizki, the county’s chief financial officer, tried to sum up the budget in one word: “recovery.”

“Making sure that we are recovering as a county, as a community as a region from this pandemic,” Rizki said. “So, I think that’s the main message we want to try and sort of articulate as we build our plans for the fall for 2022.”