On Feb. 20, John Fritchey appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for Cook County commissioner in the 12th District in the March 2018 primary. Check out his response in the video below.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates running for Cook County commissioner in the 12th District a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area. Fritchey submitted the following responses 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QUESTION: The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget.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: Since I joined the Board in 2010, we have passed a balanced budget each year, erasing a $400 Million shortfall in the process while reducing the budget by 11%. This year, I was a vocal opponent of the sweetened beverage tax and led in efforts to repeal it for a number of reasons. Specifically as it relates to the budget, I was of the mindset that while difficult decisions would have to be made, it was possible to pass a responsible budget that was balanced yet still allowed the County to perform and deliver necessary functions and services.
Given that approximately 80% of the County’s spending is related to personnel costs, it was unavoidable that there would be layoffs associated with a pared-down budget. It should be noted however, that the budget was ultimately passed without eliminating the positions of one doctor, nurse, state’s attorney or public defender. The overwhelming number of reductions came from middle-level management positions and while there was not going to be any outcome that satisfied everybody, repealing the sweetened beverage tax resulted in requiring the County to find and implement efficiencies that resulted in a stabilized budget and should form a blueprint for future budgets. In light of this, I do not presently foresee any need for new revenue sources barring any unforeseen factors, such as any dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, that may create significant budget deficits.
Political/civic background: Illinois Assistant Attorney General, 1989-1991; State Representative, 1996-2010; Cook County Commissioner 2010-present
Occupation: Cook County Commissioner; Attorney
Education: The University of Michigan, BA Economics; Northwestern University Law School, Juris Doctor
Campaign website: www.fritchey.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: Through the creation of CountyCare, we have been able to provide access to affordable healthcare to an additional 400,000 residents in Cook County. Additionally, the recent inclusion by the State of County Care as an approved provider will allow the program to continue to operate and expand its service umbrella. this means that the Health and Hospital System must continue its recent successful efforts to provide competitive levels and quality of care compared to other providers rather than solely act as a provider of last resort. Recently, the System has reached agreements with other managed care providers to acquire hundreds of thousands of new patients under the CountyCare program, allowing further growth and viability of the program. These efforts have allowed the County Board to reduce its subsidy to the System from approximately $481 Million when I took office to approximately $111 Million in our most recent budget. Even greater progress would be recognized were the State to remit to the County the approximately $80 Million due to it for health-related reimbursements.
Notwithstanding our gains, if Washington D.C. Republicans are successful in their continuing efforts to diminish or repeal the ACA, the annual loss of revenue for care provided by the Cook County Health & Hospitals System is estimated to be between $300 million and $800 million and would result in curtailed service to countless Illinois residents. Such a move may also fully jeopardize access to affordable healthcare for thousands of Cook County residents.
While the Cook County Board unfortunately can’t stop this Republican assault, I recently filed and passed a resolution urging Congress and members of the Illinois delegation to protect the ACA and the coverage it provides. Because of the complexity of the ACA, it is extremely difficult to provide a complete answer to what steps would be taken in light of reforms to the ACA without seeing the specifics of such reforms. What is clear is that ACA repeal proposals thus far are unsustainable, unfair, callous and would require increased state or local revenues to meet the needs of the uninsured in Cook County at the present levels. Regardless of any actions, it is unquestionable the we need to continue to build on the progress we have made in the Health System, especially as it pertains to patient acquisition and retention and well as increased collection efforts of amounts owed to the System.
QUESTION: What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
ANSWER: Any good organization must operate not by simply downsizing but rather by right-sizing so that depending upon the complexity and nature of the service or function, there exists a proper allocation of personnel and resources to execute the task. Cook County is no different. The time has come and gone where services are delivered in a certain manner just because ‘that’s how it has always been done’. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and our need to maintain fiscal stability has created just such a necessity.
While privatization is often held out as a panacea for all government ills, recent experiences have shown that to not be a steadfast rule. The recent request by the Clerk of the Court for a delay in compliance with e-filing requirements has been predicated in part on issues with the outside vendor. While portions of this work required specialized personnel, at a cost of millions of dollars, our in-house personnel could likely have been performed many of the same functions at less cost to taxpayers.
The reality is that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the privatization issue; each situation needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis with a determination made as to the fiscal and functional impact of any such decision. It is crucial however that the Board be vigilant in its oversight of any services provided by outside vendors to ensure that any privatization continues to be cost-effective.
QUESTION: The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
ANSWER: The State presently owes the County approximately $137.8 Million, over half of which relates to healthcare services and costs incurred by the County, while approximately $40 Million being due pursuant to the Administration of Illinois Courts statute which provides reimbursements for certain probationary services. It goes without saying that the inability of state government to even reach a budget for 2 years, let alone get on reasonable financial footing, has had a draconian impact on entities around the state, ranging from small social service providers to providers as large as Cook County.
While it would be convenient and desirable to offer a concrete solution, as a former state legislator, I can say that the realistic answer is that the County must continue its efforts to impress upon the Governor’s Administration as well as the Speaker and Senate President that these payment delays ultimately cost more money in the long run.
I have recently been engaged in conversations with a stakeholder in the State’s Vendor Assistance Program which allows approved entities to acquire state account receivables from vendors owed money by the State and step into their shoes for purposes of collection efforts of the outstanding amounts. Inclusion of the County into the program would require a change in state statute that merits serious consideration.
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: While the prudent use of TIFs can be an effective development tool, for several years now, we find ourselves in a situation in which the tool has been doing more harm than good, especially in districts like mine that are located entirely within the City. I am far from a latecomer to the issue of addressing deficiencies in the use of TIF districts and the funds generated from them. While still in the Legislature, I introduce a TIF reform package that would have directed the Auditor General to perform annual audits of TIF districts, exempted the Board of Education from any future TIF districts, and required annual reimbursement of unappropriated surplus TIF funds to the various impacted taxing bodies.
There unquestionably needs to be more community input prior to the creation of any new districts, if for no other reason than the fact that the diversions of tax revenues have significant and lasting impact on other taxing bodies ranging from the Board of Education (which receives about 52% of property taxes), Chicago government (about 20%) and Cook County government (about 10%). It is the long-term impact of TIF district creation that also dictates the need for greater transparency and oversight of the use of TIF funds. While many residents may believe that TIF funds diverted from a project in their community would be at least be used for improvements in that community, the ability to port TIF funds across multiple districts results in some residents realizing no discernable benefits from their local TIF districts.
Given that approximately 40% of the City of Chicago is located in a TIF district, it is safe to say that the use of these districts is far from underutilized and that the definition of ‘blighted’ has been eroded to a point not envisioned in the creation of the TIF statute. For instance, I think that most minds would agree that downtown LaSalle Street does not meet the definition of blighted, and yet is included in a TIF district. Moving forward, this definition needs to be realigned to limit district creations to those areas that would be unable to attract and spur economic development but for the designation.
QUESTION: Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
ANSWER: Area residents and businesses have been hit with so many taxes from all levels of governments that many are simply overwhelmed. While the county’s portion of the overall property tax levy is only approximately 10%, and despite the fact that the County has not raised its levy in over 15 years, now is not the time to increase levies as a revenue generator. It is next to impossible for a family to responsibly plan a budget with the ever-present uncertainty of higher or new taxes. To help address this problem, during the FY2016 budget, I introduced and passed the Taxpayers’ Predictability Amendment that freezes the County Sales Taxes and Aggregate Property Tax Levy for FY2017, FY2018 and FY2019. Also, any future increase in the Sales Tax or Property Tax above the aggregate levy will first require the Bureau of Finance to provide the Board with a 36-month fiscal evaluation of revenues and expenses prior to considering such increase and the aggregate levy will not be increased for 36 months following an increase in either tax without first receiving and considering the Bureau of Finance’s fiscal forecast.
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: The need to reduce or eliminate unincorporated areas of the county is so obvious that the question should be how not if. The delivery of municipal-type services by Cook County to the shrinking but still existing patchwork of unincorporated areas within Cook County is both financially and practically inefficient. For example, the County highway department is currently responsible for maintaining dozens of isolated stretches of highway in unincorporated Cook County and various municipalities. This results in a situation where when it snows, County highway trucks drop their plows for a mile and clear the County portion of the road, lift them and then proceed to the next County-maintained stretch, and so on.
From a fiscal standpoint, the present inability of the County to adequately recoup the associated costs of services delivered to these areas results in a situation in which all Cook County taxpayers are essentially providing a $19 Million subsidy to residents in the unincorporated areas. And while the unincorporated areas are a drain on our finances, the County is mandated by the State to serve those areas.
I also agree with points raised in a recent Civic Federation report, namely that the County should create a liaison to be responsible for facilitating discussions amongst municipalities and unincorporated stakeholders on various matters related to these areas, such as municipal boundary agreements and annexation discussions. Additionally, Cook County should aggressively engage with local elected officials and the Illinois General Assembly to require unincorporated areas in Cook County to be annexed by a neighboring municipality by a certain future date.
In the interim, while all of us pay for services we may never need such as fire protection, a court system, etc., in order to fairly continue to provide these services to individuals in unincorporated areas, it would also be prudent for the county to fully evaluate the true costs, including inherent overhead costs, of providing County services and impose a fee that recoups those costs.
QUESTION: What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
ANSWER: While there are a variety of tools presently in use to spur economic development, it is imperative that we continue to find additional ways of encouraging investment in our communities. I am presently working to draft and introduce legislation to implement a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program in Cook County. PACE is an economic development engine with proven results in municipalities from D.C. to L.A. and thousands of cities and towns in between. PACE allows property owners (residential, commercial, and industrial) to obtain low-cost, long-term financing for energy efficiency, water conservation and renewable energy projects, among others. PACE pays for 100% of a project’s costs and is repaid for up to 20 years with an assessment added to the property’s tax bill.
In other jurisdictions, PACE has already financed billions of dollars of clean energy improvements for homeowners and approximately $500 million for over 1000 commercial building owners. This capital investment has had dramatic impacts on local economies ranging from increased jobs for contractors to reduced energy bills for thousands of homeowners and has simultaneously increased property values in central business districts through efficient redevelopment projects. As an additional and lasting benefit, PACE-funded developments have played a significant role in helping municipalities reach their climate goals.
While a PACE program is not a cure-all to help develop stagnant areas, it clearly merits being added to the incentives available to attract new development in the 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: The Next Century Conservation Plan (NCCP) lays out a dramatically bold yet achievable vision to restore and enhance the diversity of the Preserves to be enjoyed by the diverse residents of Cook County. While there is widespread praise and support for the substance of the plan, to date, there is no consensus as to how to fund its implementation.
Reports have led to the conclusion that increasing any taxes to fund the NCCP is not a viable option. The most often discussed means of finding sufficient resources is to do so through a combination of non-financial resources such as increased volunteers and in-kind services coupled with non-tax revenues including public-private partnerships, corporate sponsorships, expanded concessions, outsourcing and other operational efficiencies. In any event, the commitment to achieving the goal will be tied to a commitment to make the difficult choices that may be necessary with respect to budgetary constraints.
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: While it is imperative that we keep access to the sites and trails affordable, just as there are fees for items such as picnics and other activities, it is also reasonable to charge a reasonable fee for things such as parking. Such a fee has long-existed at Brookfield Zoo with no discernable adverse impact on attendance levels.
QUESTION: Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
ANSWER: The Forest Preserve is a crown jewel of Cook County, being the largest in the country at approximately 60,000 acres and drawing millions of visits annually. Almost exactly a decade ago, the Civic Federation and the Friends of the Forest Preserves issued a scathing report calling for an independent Forest Preserve District Board. Yet just last month, the Civic Federation named Arnold Randall, General Superintendent of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, as the 2017 Motorola Solutions Foundation Excellence in Public Service Award honoree. The Civic Federation has been similarly supportive of the County Board for the turnaround in oversight, land acquisition, preservation policies and long-range planning for the future of the Forest Preserves. Additionally, the collaborative partnership between the Board and the Friends of the Forest Preserves has never been more positive and productive. Perhaps most symbolic of progress that’s been made is the 2014 publication of the Next Century Conservation Plan, a bold long-term initiative to further improve the Forest Preserves for generations to come.
As a result, while I have no objections to the creation of an independent FPD Board, a strong argument can be made that what was needed wasn’t necessarily a change in structure as much a change in focus, stewardship and dedication to the mission of the Forest Preserve District. I must also point out that my recent actions have been aimed at consolidation of local government and a strong case would have to be made to justify the creation of additional, countywide elected positions along with all of the costs associated with such a new body of government.
QUESTION: Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
ANSWER: As a former State Representative, I understand the challenges of Springfield. I also know first-hand what it is like to deal with a difficult governor, even sitting on the Special Investigative Committee that oversaw the impeachment of former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Yet, even through a non-partisan lens, it is clear to see that we presently have a Governor who is unwilling or unable to govern. As a result, all Illinoisans suffer and given that Cook County makes up 40% of Illinois’ population, our residents have disproportionately felt the sting from the seemingly intentional death-grip placed on state government. The overwhelming and long-overdue sums owed to the County have significant budget implications. Similarly, countless local social service agencies struggle to make payroll or continue to provide needed services. While all Illinoisans deserve to be treated fairly by their state government, the reality is that Cook County and its residents feel the brunt far more than most.
QUESTION: Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
ANSWER: As the result of us having consistently passed balanced budgets, restructuring and making more than the required payments into our pension fund, Cook County has been given stable ratings from every ratings agency albeit that the ratings could obviously be altered in light of any significant changes in financial conditions. Given the political and constitutional realities involved, recent history has shown just how difficult it is to negotiate and pass viable reform legislation. That notwithstanding, in light of the smothering financial burdens facing many governments, efforts must continue toward a path that can them regain financial footing. It remains to be seen what that final product will look like but it is certain that it will have to be one that is consistent with the Constitutional requirements protecting workers currently in the system.
QUESTION: Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
ANSWER: I have no relatives on the county payroll nor have I ever had a relative on a public payroll during the entirety of my public service career. I believe that there should be a prohibition on any elected officials placing relatives of any sort on their payroll. While there may be circumstances in which such a relative is qualified, those circumstances are readily outweighed by the appearances of impropriety and conflict and only serve to further erode public trust in government.