On Feb. 19, Joshua Gray appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for Cook County commissioner in the 3rd District in the March 2018 primary. Check out his response in the video below.
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 county. Gray 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QUESTION: The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget.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 do not think you can claim that any budget is truly balanced when you will continue to struggle paying county pensions, and when you are continually making cuts to key areas. When you have to choose between innovative programming at Cook County Jail and county employee’s careers you have an issue. Firing employees or cuts to services are not the answers to every government’s budgetary crisis. Instead taking a different approach like innovating government and begin to use evidence-driven policymaking.
For new revenues, this is a three-prong approach. In 2015 there was $20B in foreign investment in Chicago either from companies or individuals. Since there is such a boom in real estate development I think the time is right to incorporate a foreign-buyers tax. Furthermore, a slight increase in the tobacco tax to fund healthcare. Finally, the approval of marijuana sales within Cook County be considered. The money generated can fund specific programs and/or departments that are crucial to the public.
With regards to potential cost-cutting, it will be strategic and measured. A reputable consultant would be brought in to identify where cuts should be made. However, there are certain programs that should be off-limits, for instance; law enforcement, judicial, and healthcare. Furthermore, the time is now for the county to become more IT-friendly and follow the lead of other jurisdictions. A move towards technology would eliminate some positions upon retirement, reduce energy costs for county buildings, and allow for quicker service.
Political/civic background: Former Community Organizer, Educator and Chairman of Juvenile Advisory Board
Occupation: (Educational Field) Director of Community Engagement and Advocacy
Education: Sam Houston State University. Bachelors in Business Administration
Campaign website: www.citizensforjoshuagray.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: If the ACA is eliminated that means more people in our communities would be without health insurance. This will be an opportunity for the county to become innovative by creating a solid public and private partnership funding model for healthcare.
QUESTION: What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
ANSWER: I oppose privatizing and downsizing of the county’s workforce. Every time someone mentions privatization I quiver in my boots because once a corporation gets involved with what should be government run services the first people that become vulnerable are minority employees. Furthermore, the quality of service is decreased. In recent years when Chicago Public Schools privatized janitorial services in schools, we saw a sharp decline in the quality of service, placing our teachers and children at risk. Private companies tend to pay their workers less than unionized employees and provide little to no benefits. That situation has shown us that workers tend to then care less about their job and do not see it as a career or a way they can provide for their families over time. County jobs, and government jobs in general, have been the backbone of a strong working and middle class. These, mostly unionized, employees have provided quality service and been rewarded with fair pay, health benefits, and retirement packages. It has been shown throughout history that this model produces quality for the employers and is an anchor in our communities.
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: The concept of TIF districts is great. They can be a valuable development tool. However, as we have seen recently, TIF money has not been used appropriately as we saw in the Navy Pier story back on July 27, 2017 – TIF money being diverted to projects in high-income, wealthy neighborhoods. I contend that if you used properly it could really help fund areas that truly need the assistance. The definition of a “blighted” area should be narrowed and/or the number of factors that the proposed district meet should be increased.
QUESTION: Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
ANSWER: The tax assessment system should change. Over the years there have been many initiatives to make matters fairer. However, we are at a crossroads and the county is not sure how to fix a system that we all know is bias, unfair, and broken. Therefore, it is time for property taxes to be frozen. The people of Cook County need a break from tax hikes. However, knowing that our property taxes pay for services and projects, there will need to be a time frame attached to the freeze while a committee evaluates the current system, past approaches, and develops a new plan. That plan will then be discussed publicly before the County Board votes on it. I favor consolidating the board of review and assessor’s office. All property tax assessments should be certified at the time of the assessment by internal employees who review them. Property owners should only have one opportunity to appeal their taxes at the county level. All other appeals should be filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County.
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: I support the merging or amalgamating unincorporated pockets of the county with adjoining municipalities because the taxpayers are paying for duplicative services and require expensive resources. County law enforcement patrol these unincorporated areas, and could be refocused to areas that need increased patrols throughout the county. We are currently paying millions of dollars for only 127,000 citizens that live in unincorporated land. With this current setup, we are wasting services and money that could be used for other services and projects. To do this we will need to incentivize the municipalities by providing lump sum funding, additional representation on the County board, or sharing some federal dollars over a specific period during the annexation time.
QUESTION: What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
ANSWER: I think that there are parts in county that are thriving. If we look at the north part of district 3 people and corporations are flocking there. However, there are some areas in the district that have not been as lucky. I believe we will need to create incentive measures such as packages that include; a reduction or freeze in property taxes and small business grants and/or loans from the county to increase development.
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: Everyone loves the Forest Preserve. It is some of the most beautiful land in the state and we need to protect it, however, the county does not have the money for it. I propose that we find and work with an organization that can help with funding the conservation plan by way of fundraising. As a last resort, the Forest Preserve could consider charging for parking or increasing permit costs, but any increase would decrease the amount of people who are able to enjoy the areas. It is important to keep the areas accessible to as many people and groups from diverse backgrounds as possible.
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: The Forest Preserve District is for the people, and a venue that should always continue to be free from any measure of cost to visitors. If we begin to start charging for parking, what is next? It is a slippery slope and a road that could lead to mounting charges and decreased visitors.
QUESTION: Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
ANSWER: Unless the board will truly be independent and handle matters of funding and protection of the forest preserve, I do not think should have its own board.
QUESTION: Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
ANSWER: Cook County is not being treated fairly. The state currently owes the county $171M dollars due to the disagreement between the state legislature and governor. These owed funds have drastically hindered social service providers within Cook County. Some providers discontinued services and jobs were cut. This impact of this disagreement cause irreparable damage. Paying the debt could restore some services or lead to new hiring.
QUESTION: Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
ANSWER: I support an effort to reform county pensions for new employees only. The current employees should be allowed to retire in the old system and be offered new choices. Retired employees should not have benefits cut and cost of living increases and health care options should remain a part of their packages.
QUESTION: Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
ANSWER: Darryl Gray, paternal uncle, Cook County Probation Officer. It is improper for elected officials to hire relatives. Employing a relative gives the impression of nepotism and can impede productivity. The relative may be perceived as receiving preferential treatment. Any promotions may be scrutinized, and opportunities may be impeded by conflicts of interest.