On January 16th Daniel Foster appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for Cook County commissioner in the 13th District in the March 2018 primary:
My name is Daniel Foster. I’m a candidate for the Cook County Board of Commissioners in District 13. I grew up in Wilmette. I live with my husband in Skokie now. I have a bachelor’s of science in mathematics and computer science from the University of Illinois at Chicago. My career history includes work in the actuarial sciences, in the software development industry and in the non-for-profit sectors.
My top priority is really tax reform. You know, I think that we have a property tax system here in Cook County that’s not fair. It’s not transparent and what I really want to do is to reform our property tax system so that we assess properties based only on land location, usage and size which would be a much fairer, simpler and more transparent system. It will immediately eliminate the need to constantly be appealing your property tax assessment and it will also immediately eliminate the tax penalty that homeowners pay to do improvements on their home.
You know, I think one of my biggest causes is actually to do with mass incarceration. I think that the mass incarceration is sort of just a scourge of my generation. It’s the most blatant and institutionalized form of segregation that my generation faces today and I think it’s a serious issue that we need to solve and that we need to really stop incarcerating the number of people that we do.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking nominations for the Cook County Board of Commissioners a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois. Foster submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
QUESTION: The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget.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.
ANSWER: I believe one of the most urgent and immediate goals of our county government needs to be preparing for an urbanizing world. People are moving away from rural towns and agricultural areas into large metropolitan cities. Wealthy urban centers, like Chicago, can stand to benefit greatly from this global trend. At the moment, Cook County’s population is declining, but that makes us a global outlier. I believe that it is essential our local government act to reverse this trend before we are irreparably damaged by it.
As a result, I think it is necessary for our county to immediately invest in redesigning our infrastructure while improving and expanding our government’s services to support an increased urban population. At the same time, we need to target these changes so that we stop Cook County’s population decline. To do this, we need significant changes to our tax code, as well as changes to the quantity and quality of services our government provides.
One of my key tax proposals is to change the way that we assess property value so that property assessments are based only on land size, location, and usage – rather than the value of the structure that sits on the property. This change will immediately eliminate the tax penalty on home improvements, and will remove the tax incentive for letting properties decay. Other cities have used similar tax assessment schemes to successfully combat urban decay and to promote urban development. For Cook County, this system will also end decades of abuse in the property assessment system – making assessments simple, fair, and transparent. Similar lots with similar usage in similar locations will assess for similar values, which reduces the time and money property owners must spend to contest their property assessments.
In addition, I am proposing that the County Board replace the county’s portion of the sales tax with a new tax on a new class of easily assessed property: investment property. Other cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, have implemented taxes on investment property without detrimental effect. Here in Cook County the effect will be enormously positive. For one thing, this change will make our tax code far more progressive, helping the very people that are now fleeing Cook County the most. This change will also make Cook County friendlier for businesses, which will see an immediate increase in consumer activity as a result of the dramatically reduced sales tax.
I would design this newly implemented tax to capture slightly more revenue than the current sales tax captures right now. My intention is to use this revenue on a $2.4 billion / 10 year program to replace public and private landscapes with natural flora, reducing our county’s net carbon emissions by 40% and putting us on track to meet our Paris Climate Agreement goals. This program will save the average homeowner nearly $300 in annual home maintenance costs, and will save certain homeowners thousands annually in reduced damage from basement flooding. This program will also save the MWRD and local municipalities approximately $60 million annually after completion due to reduced infrastructure strain from rainwater runoff. In other cities, these programs have been shown to additionally save homeowners hundreds of dollars in utility costs, but since Cook County will be among the first in our climate to institute a natural flora program exact numbers are difficult to calculate.
Additionally, I propose shifting approximately 2% of Cook County’s overall budget from the justice system into economic development, bringing our total investment in economic development to approximately 5% of the County’s overall budget. In the long run, I think this percentage needs to be even higher if we are to truly prepare for the infrastructure strain mass urbanization will create. In the short run, however, I propose using about half of these shifted funds (1% of the County’s overall budget) on venture-capital style investments in cultural and academic research and development. These small scale investments will encourage development across Cook County, and will invest in the place that attracts businesses the most: our workforce.
Running for: Cook County commissioner in the 13th District
Political/civic background: I am not a wealthy businessman or an experienced politician: I am new to activism and to politics. Up until recently, I was just an ordinary person – but I have a genuine excitement for the future that many of my family, friends, and neighbors don’t share. I have long held unique views on local and federal politics, and after the 2016 elections I was encouraged to run by those who know me so I might share those views in a forum where they could make a difference. After researching our local government, I chose to run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners because this office will give me a chance to make an impact on the issues I care most deeply about. These issues include reimagining our criminal justice system, improving our environment (e.g. via the forest preserve), and improving the public health response to gun violence and untreated mental illness.
Occupation: Software Developer
Education: BS Mathematics and Computer Science from University of Illinois at Chicago
Campaign website: commissionerfoster.com
QUESTION: 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?
ANSWER: Our healthcare system is designed to discourage use of the system. Copays and deductibles are designed to discourage consumers from “over using” their healthcare. Unfortunately, under use of the healthcare system costs us several times more than overuse. I intend to create programs that will help people, especially those with less ability or education, to use our County’s healthcare system. While it may seem counter-intuitive, expansion of free services to County residents will actually save money. I think that it should ultimately be our goal to provide healthcare that is free after the cost of health insurance.
In addition, I want to ensure that a more comprehensive system of human service care is provided to all County health patients. When patients go to the doctor or even the emergency room, they should be provided with more than just symptomatic care from doctors and nurses. The County should provide a comprehensive array of social services so that patients can improve their lives that, in turn, will improve their health and reduce the burden of having to repeatedly visit the County hospital. In other parts of the country where such services are provided, this has been proven to reduce costs while providing the public with better overall health.
In addition, I believe the County Board should introduce more protections for patients that visit private hospitals. Privately operated hospitals claiming a tax exemption should be required to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, and should be prohibited from sending those patients to Cook County in order to avoid treating them. These private institutions should also be required to participate in all publicly coordinated community-health efforts such as mass vaccinations or public clinic services. We cannot afford to allow healthcare institutions to remain an industry while pretending to be a charitable service. As a member of the County Board I will fight hard to eliminate this kind of abuse.
QUESTION: What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
ANSWER: Our State Constitution and the Federal Constitution are both designed to curtail the powers of government, but have little to say about the powers of corporations. In an age where privacy rights are poorly protected as a result of this loophole, I believe it is essential for governments to provide services directly to the taxpayer via public employees. Public employees can be held to a higher standard of privacy, ethics and responsibility than can private employees. Until and unless our Constitution can properly protect workers, consumers, and residents from corporate “terms of service” agreements that inherently diminish legal and privacy protections, we should not be forcing taxpayers to do business with private entities if they want to receive vital services. As a result, I strongly oppose the privatization of government services.
While I believe the county should endeavor to administer all of its services to the public via public employees, in the case of emergency or where temporary services may be needed, I would support the use of outside professional services if doing so was the best and most cost-effective way of delivering results to the taxpayer.
QUESTION: The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
ANSWER:While Cook County could sue the State in order to get paid, I believe doing so would be a highly costly and unnecessary endeavor. The most essential thing we can do during 2018 is replace Governor Rauner with one of the several highly qualified Democratic candidates for Governor. These candidates will work with other politicians in Springfield, rather than against them, in order to end the paralysis that has afflicted Illinois for Governor Rauner’s entire term. I believe that if we replace Governor Rauner, Springfield will honor its debts and obligations in the manner it always had before Governor Rauner’s administration was put in place. Ideally, I would also have the State pay Cook County interest on the money it is owed, so that the taxpayer does not have to suffer the consequences of a medium-term wait over the long term.
QUESTION: 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?
ANSWER: I believe that tax-increment financing districts are an ineffective way of boosting development and improving blighted areas. Under my proposal to reform the property tax assessment system, TIF districts would become even less effective, because land location and usage would already have a greater impact on assessed value. As a result, I generally oppose the use of TIF districts even with greater community input or with a different definition of a blighted area. Instead, I think our tax code should automatically reflect the lower value of property in these areas and assess them accordingly.
QUESTION: Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
ANSWER: I oppose Republican-led effort to freeze local property taxes. By guaranteeing a freeze in local property tax rates, we would be locking in our current property tax system – a system that I believe needs significant reform. In addition, it is impossible to predict the needs a county as large and as complex as ours even 3 or 5 years down the line. As a result, I think it would be incredibly short sighted to lock in the taxes of today without being able to know the requirements of tomorrow.
QUESTION: Do you support or oppose efforts to merge unincorporated pockets of the county into adjoining municipalities? If so, how would you make that happen?
ANSWER: Due to Cook County’s highly urbanized population, the services provided to one resident has an outsized impact on the environment, the economy, and the quality of services provided to every resident. Many areas of unincorporated Cook County receive fewer or lower quality services than the areas immediately surrounding them. This has a massive impact on those surrounding areas. As a result, I am not in favor of any part of Cook County remaining unincorporated over the long term. I believe that municipalities should annex unincorporated parts of Cook County based on zip codes, school districts, and services that the unincorporated areas already share with their bordering municipalities.
QUESTION: What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
ANSWER: In order to encourage economic development in Cook County I believe it is essential to invest in the place where it matters most: our workers. We must increase workplace safety, make it easier for workers to get hired at terms that are fair to them, and provide the infrastructure every worker needs to reliably get to work on time.
One of my top priorities in my first term will be increasing the amount the county spends on economic development. I have proposed shifting approximately 2% of the county’s overall budget from the justice system to economic development, bringing total investment in economic development to about 5% of our county’s budget. In addition, I have proposed using half of these extra funds, approximately 1% of our county’s budget, on venture-capital style investment in cultural and academic research and development. These small-scale investments will have an outsized impact on communities throughout Cook County, as we attract talent and increase innovation at a relatively low cost. In addition, these small scale businesses will demand a much higher proportion of services per dollar than larger businesses given a similar sized tax break.
In addition, I have proposed a significant revision to the manner in which Cook County performs property assessments. This change will encourage development, since there will be a drastically reduced tax advantage to allowing land to remain idle. I have also proposed replacing the county’s portion of the sales tax with a new tax on investment property, which will increase commercial activity due to an immediate and drastic reduction in the sales tax. Combined with increased investment in economic development, these changes will help slow and even reverse our county’s struggle with population decline. As the population stabilizes and begins to grow, this will draw increased development to Cook County.
QUESTION: 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?
ANSWER: I would raise this additional revenue during the transition from Cook County’s sales tax to a tax on investment property. I would design this investment property tax to capture slightly more revenue than the sales tax so we would have a chance to eliminate other regressive taxes – namely fees and fines. Projects such as the Forest Preserve District’s Next Century Conservation Plan will be able to gain additional funding through this new tax source.
QUESTION: 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?
ANSWER: No. I believe that public lands should be open to the public. Charging for the use of public lands diminishes their utility and their positive impact on the most vulnerable and least mobile of Cook County’s residents.
QUESTION: Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
ANSWER: No. I generally oppose most efforts to add offices (and therefore layers of complexity) to our existing local government. I am generally in favor of streamlining our local government by reducing the number of offices and departments that exist over the long term. Adding an additional board, such as one for the Forest Preserve District, would go against the long-term goal of making local government simpler, cheaper, and more effective for our county’s residents.
QUESTION: Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
ANSWER: Chicago is not only the largest city in Illinois, it is also the largest city in the Great Lakes and Midwest regions. It is the economic powerhouse of Cook County and all of its surrounding counties. As a result, I believe the State should be giving Cook County as much flexibility as it possibly can, including the ability to levy an income tax – a type of taxation that is currently reserved only for Springfield.
Regardless, I believe that Cook County needs to take an active roll in leading our region in this new millennium. As a member of county government I intend to work with other politicians from across Cook County, and surrounding counties, to modernize and integrate the entire region. This kind of leadership and responsibility is not about fairness, it’s about improving people’s lives and saving money at the same time. I do not believe that complaining about being treated unfairly by Springfield is an effective use of the County Board’s time, and I do not believe that legal battles with Springfield or other jurisdictions is an effective use of the County Board’s money. I intend to work within the confines of the Illinois Constitution, and the existing powers of the County Board, in order to make an impact on people’s lives – not to complain about being treated unfairly.
QUESTION: Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
ANSWER: In the long run, I believe that the only method of fixing the county’s pension system is bringing in enough revenue to reach adequate levels of funding. However, fully funding our county’s pension does not require a reform of the pension system – it requires investments in modernization so that our county can save money, and then using that savings to keep the promises of our past.
QUESTION: Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
ANSWER: To my knowledge I have no relatives on the public payroll in Illinois.
I am the only candidate in my race that is pledging to work exclusively and full time for my constituents. The incumbent is a lobbyist and law partner that has never worked full time for District 13. My other opponent is a marketing major at DePaul that is still years away from finishing her degree. Neither can honestly pledge that they will dedicate themselves only to the people of our district in the same manner that I intend to. I believe that outside work for paid elected officials should be heavily restricted to avoid all conflicts of interest.
In this same respect, I believe that it should be illegal for elected officials to hire their relatives. Officials should not be able to use their positions of power to perform favors for friends, relatives, or donors. I would support legislation to give the Board of Ethics greater authority to investigate and enforce this sort of ban, and to undo cases of patronage where it has already occurred.