Democrat Bill Lowry is the Sun-Times’ endorsed candidate in the 3rd district Cook County board race.
On Feb. 19, Lowry appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for Cook County commissioner in the 3rd District. After winning the March primary, Lowry faces Republican George Blakemore in the November general election.
Here are his responses to our editorial board questionnaire.
The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget. Can county government now claim an appropriate balance of revenue and services, or will more revenue or more cost-cutting be necessary? Please be specific as to where new revenue might come from, or where further cuts could be made.
Lowry: We must secure revenue already owed to the County by the state of Illinois; said amount totaled $145 million last fall. I would also seek federal funding for programs such as the Community Development Block Grant and Home Investment Partnerships. In the 2017 budget, these programs were funded in the total amount of $117.2 million. Only after securing money already owed to the county would I consider other revenue producing measures, such as taxation. When considering taxes, I would favor a progressive tax or the least regressive tax possible.
If the Affordable Care Act is eliminated or curtailed, what would you propose doing to keep the county’s Health and Hospitals System on sound financial footing?
Lowry: For much of 2017, advocates feared that the Administration would successfully repeal the ACA and the related expansion of Medicaid, which could cost the Cook County health system up to $300 million per year. The looming threats of turning Medicaid into a block grant program have further complicated the issue.
While we have dodged a complete repeal of the Act, the current Administration is determined to systematically dismantle or neutralize the program. Although a loss of money to the Health and Hospital is imminent, it is difficult to ascertain the specific impact on the system. Although the County will have to work assiduously to find ways to shore up its system, allowing residents to remain untreated is not an option.
Who is Bill Lowry?
He’s running for: Democratic nomination for Cook County commissioner in the 3rd District
His political/civic background: I have worked tirelessly on issues of social justice, children’s rights, access to health care and volunteerism. I have served on the Board of Directors of 14 organizations, including: Bright Star Community Outreach, the University of Chicago Police Department Community Advisory Board, Legal Prep Charter Academy, Chicago Family Connections, and Lake Forest College. I am the President of the Board of Governors of Loyola University School of Law. At both Lake Forest College and Loyola Law School, I have fostered the creation of scholarships to support students of color in their pursuit of higher education. I have also served on committees of such institutions as the DuSable Museum of African-American History, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and the Get In Chicago Advisory Network, among others.
What is of the most personal to me was the creation of The It’s Time Organization (TITO), inspired by the senseless shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton steps from my doorway. I organized my neighbors, colleagues and associates to create TITO to combat youth conflict and violence with after-school programs, summer jobs, internships and mentors. Since its inception, TITO has provided opportunities to hundreds of youth in the 3rd, 4th and 5th Wards of Chicago.
His occupation: Attorney; President and Co-Managing Shareholder of Nyhan, Bambrick, Kinzie & Lowry, P.C.
His education: First attended St. Francis de Sales High School; graduated from Francis W. Parker High School. Attended Lake Forest College and graduated with a degree in History and Political Science. Received juris doctor from Loyola University School of Law.
Campaign website: www.billlowry.com
What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
Lowry: I am not a proponent of privatization of County functions. However, I do believe that we should consider the concept of managed competition, a structured, transparent process that allows a fair comparison of public sector employees with independent contractors in their ability to deliver services to residents. Bringing together all parties, including labor and management, will enable them to work together in the best interest of the residents of Cook County.
The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
Lowry: We must hold the state of Illinois accountable. Cook County needs to be paid from the 2.5 years of no budget. Cook County and county governments across this state are in no position to leave money on the table.
What is your position on tax-increment financing districts? Are they a valuable development tool? Are they underutilized? Is the process sufficiently transparent? Should there be more community input? Should the definition of a “blighted” area be revised?
Lowry: TIFs, when used properly, are a useful economic tool in the toolbox of local governments to address blight in communities. We need to have full accountability and transparency on how we use TIFs and which projects deserve to have access to TIF resources. It should not be a slush fund for local government to use without a layer of transparency. I applaud the work and advocacy that County Clerk Orr has done on this matter.
Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
Lowry: Governor Rauner has made a property tax freeze a centerpiece of his demands for a full state budget. But without a provision for replacement revenue from the state, a property tax freeze would effectively be a massive funding cut for K-12 education in Cook County and across Illinois.
I believe that we must push for the immediate implementation of the new computer models that the Assessor has indicated would be more fair and accurate for taxpayers. I would favor the implementation of efficiencies in integrating the offices actually handling tax administration. However, I would be opposed to combining the Assessor’s Office and the Board of Review, as this would eliminate an opportunity for taxpayers to appeal their taxes twice during a tax year.
Do you support or oppose efforts to merge unincorporated pockets of the county into adjoining municipalities? If so, how would you make that happen?
Lowry: Cook County is an expansive county. Cook County government provides “municipal” type services to unincorporated residents, including police patrol. Unfortunately, the County rarely recoups the cost of providing services. In order to fill the financial gap, it would be prudent to merge unincorporated pockets of the County into adjoining municipalities. Such a merger would also ensure continuity of standards of nearby incorporated communities, and move towards an environmental where all residents of Cook County reside in a municipality where there is local control over local decisions.
In order to accomplish this, there would need to be some degree of negotiation between municipalities and unincorporated areas. Concessions may be made, including grandfathering in residents in unincorporated areas, as it pertains to infrastructure conditions. And in the cases where merger is not feasible, the County could explore entering into intergovernmental agreements with adjoining municipalities for police patrol, code enforcement and other services.
What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
Lowry: The Third District alone is replete with educational and cultural resources, from the Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, to its historical neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Kenwood and the Gold Coast. From Streeterville to Bronzeville, I believe that pursuing economic equity is fundamental to bridging the work of the County with the average citizen.
All residents must have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the economy, which, in turn will better help generate revenue for the County. As such, I believe that we need a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the myriad of economic opportunities within the Third District and Cook County at large, while addressing the potential challenges to taking full advantage of its numerous resources
As Commissioner, I will promote initiatives that encourage businesses to move jobs and innovation into Cook County, support the modernization of our existing business infrastructure, including innovations in advance manufacturing, transportation and logistics. I believe that we must create and nurture an innovation mentality to attract talent, keep businesses thriving, encourage entrepreneurs and increase job growth. We must also support and promote initiatives that promote entrepreneurship and increase access to capital, especially for women and people of color, who comprise the fastest growing entrepreneurial segments in the county.
Finally, as a way to help counteract the violence that has plagued our communities, including my own neighborhood, I am committed to aggressively supporting the creation or maintenance of programs that seek to hire youth for the summer and beyond.
An additional $40 million per year is needed to fund the Forest Preserve District’s Next Century Conservation Plan. Where can the county find the money?
Lowry: The Forest Preserve is underfunded and needs an increase in its currently allocated share of the property taxes collected.
Traditionally, the Forest Preserve District has not charged for parking in the preserves, but it is considering doing so at Swallow Cliff Woods. Do you support that?
Lowry: Swallow Cliff Woods has a parking problem. I believe that charging for parking is one of the ways to help people enjoy the amenity, while encouraging the flow of travel.
Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
Lowry: The Forest Preserve District does not need a separate body, but it does need a full dedicated day for its business to be fully addressed by the Board of Commissioners. There are days when the County Board toggles between County and Forest Preserve business, which takes away from the full attention that the Forest Preserve needs.
Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
Lowry: Cook County is a major economic engine for the state of Illinois. However, I believe it is wholly unproductive to engage in any discussion that involves pitting one county against another. As Commissioner, I will work diligently to both enhance the residents of my district and the County at large. However, as a resident of Illinois, I am equally as concerned about all counties thriving, which, ultimately, will contribute to the growth and strength of the entire state and all of its residents.
Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
Lowry: Cook County has been increasing its pension payments on its own to meet the legacy debt it has had in the past. It has been going above what it is required to pay each year because funding pensions is the right thing to do for retirees and its current employees. The County will have to address the pension issue when in 2019 it has more annuitants’ then current employees. Revenue discussion has to be on the table to address these challenges, because employees have already done their part in making payments to their pension with each paycheck.
Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
Lowry: I do not have any relatives that currently hold a County job. I believe that elected officials should avoid hiring relatives, as it is rife with conflict.
Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, the Sun-Times is teaming up weekly with the Better Government Association, in print and online, to fact-check the truthfulness of the candidates. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.