On Feb. 19, Steven Wolfe 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. Wolfe 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QUESTION: The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget.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: Regardless of a balanced budget, as long as property values continue to decline while property and sales taxes remain high, we cannot claim an appropriate balance of revenue and services. Cook County is suffering the highest population loss in the country; and we’re mainly losing well-educated and highly-paid residents. This is an indication that our budget shortfalls are not just trends but structural cycles of debt and waste. Cutting and increasing efficiency are critically necessary but we also need more revenue. I would start generating revenue by leveraging our assets and off-loading our liabilities. I would promote selling much of the 19 million square feet in real estate property owned/leased by the county, especially our dilapidated and underused holdings. I would aggressively push for better investor relations, particularly in pursuit of “Green Bonds,” which are attractive to investors because they are tax exempt and to residents because they make use of underutilized space/property while contributing to a more sustainable environment. I would also consider selling private advertising opportunities on and inside County government facilities to increase our return on assets. Lastly, Illinois has the highest tollway usage rates in the country and the vast majority of tollway revenues are generated from roads feeding into Cook County and the City of Chicago. I would pursue a cut of Illinois tollway receipts for County government in order to offset our transportation infrastructure and maintenance costs.
Political/civic background: Never elected. I have an extensive background in mentoring youth, providing charitable services to the poor and homeless and providing support to seniors.
Occupation: CFO, Chicago Women’s Health Care
Education: I’m an engineer with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a finance and business strategy professional with an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis.
Campaign website: www.Voteforwolfe.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: It is important that we oppose efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, especially without a clear understanding of what would replace it. The ACA has been instrumental in stabilizing the finances for the Cook County Health system. It has also supported a shift in provision of healthcare services to low-income patients, from heavy reliance on emergency room care to more reliance on preventive care. The repeal or limitation of the ACA Medicaid Expansion would have a far reaching impact including an estimated 320,000 fewer insured individuals, over 300 million dollar per year loss to Cook County and increased taxpayer burden.
Any action to eliminate or reduce the ACA must be addressed not just by Cook County, but also by the State and Federal government. Uninsured patients must be covered to reduce the financial strain of uncompensated healthcare. The CountyCare Medicaid program has been a source of revenue for the Cook County Health System since 2015, and currently provides over 60 percent of the revenue to the system. I support expanding CountyCare to cover Medicaid eligible patients left uncovered in a Medicaid Expansion repeal or reduction. I would also encourage Insurers who already have Medicaid products in Illinois to broaden the scope of their Medicaid coverage.
The Cook County Health System has historically been known to attract excellent physicians who provide outstanding medical care to all patients. This can be leverage with the opening of the new, state of the art outpatient facility to attract a different payor mix for the system and provide additional revenue. Finally, I would work to strengthen ongoing coordination of patient care services among all Cook County health systems, improve healthcare literacy and invest in county neighborhood clinics to re-emphasize illness prevention and wellness promotion.
QUESTION: What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
ANSWER: Privatization is necessary for projects requiring very special skills and expertise, and those functions that County government does not perform so well, such as real estate management. I believe better efficiencies can be achieved by ending the exorbitant and arbitrary salary increases for county government employees.
QUESTION: The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
ANSWER: Cook County accounts for more than 40% of the state’s income tax collections. As a primary contributor, Cook County’s tax payment structure and schedule should reflect its outsized contribution to the state’s tax rolls. I recommend Cook County pay a percentage of its tax receipts after paying off its own time-sensitive debt and paying for certain critically needed services for its residents, like healthcare and public safety. Until Illinois is current on its payouts to Cook County, Illinois should calculate Cook County’s state tax contribution according to our earnings after we meet our critical needs, not on our gross receipts.
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: TIF is the most successful economic development tool in the last 50 years. We need it. However, it is not transparent enough and it is obviously misused. The definition of blight is at the core of TIF misuse. Blight is an obvious condition, no one can mistake. So the definition should reflect the condition. Lastly, I would recommend that all municipal TIFs in Cook County be approved by the County Board.
QUESTION: Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
ANSWER: As I mentioned above, Cook County is suffering massive population loss. But it’s not just population loss, its revenue, business and goodwill loss as well. We must freeze property taxes. Illinois is the second highest taxed state in the union and Cook County residents are bearing the worst of it. What do we have to show for this? Clearly, tax increases are not creating the fiscal benefits that lead to balance and sustainability. Also, as long as there is evidence of assessment fraud and a property tax system rigged against poor and minority communities, raising taxes only exacerbates the offense of these disparities. We have to freeze taxes now.
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 do not support annexing unincorporated areas (UA’s). UA’s of Cook County are important because they provide flexibility for future use of certain lands and properties. For this purpose, I believe we should maintain a certain level of UA’s but also design in-depth plans that ensure we are deriving maximum value from them. The population served by the 2.4% of UA residents is so small the financial impact of serving them is immaterial.
QUESTION: What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
ANSWER: As part of a larger economic development strategy, here are two steps I would take to encourage economic development. I would expand County government bid opportunities for minority contractors. Currently, minority firms hold less than 1% of contracts with Cook County’s Health System. I would consolidate TIF policy and funding under the purview of the County Board to design an integrated and coordinated regional TIF strategy that harnesses all of the County’s assets to affect growth in blighted communities.
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 do not support monetizing our Forest Preserves. Just like our lakefront, all recreational, open and natural spaces should remain open and free to the public into perpetuity. We should never sell these lands to private interests and only transfer them to other government entities with a mandate that they remain open and free to the public forever. For new revenue, not just for the Forest Preserve District, but also for other general budget obligations, I would take the steps mentioned above in my response to the first question.
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?
QUESTION: Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
ANSWER: No. Cook County government needs a reduction of government layers, not an increase of government layers. However, I do agree that the FPD is overlooked and scarcely engaged in a meaningful way by the Cook County Board of Commissioners. We simply need better informed and engaged FPD advocates on the Board.
QUESTION: Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
ANSWER: Cook County is the lifeblood of Illinois. It offers the best attractions for revenue, contributes the most tax revenue to the state and carries the heaviest burden for providing safety net services to Illinois families. Despite these accolades, Illinois is in arrears on payments to Cook County government and, among other forms of neglect, it provides little support in educating Cook County children. It’s clear that Cook County is not fairly treated by Springfield.
QUESTION: Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
ANSWER: Yes, of course. Pension liabilities are the primary drag on Cook County’s fiscal health.
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 who are Cook County employees. Nepotism and patronage are creating a corruption tax that County taxpayers cannot afford. As County salaries increase and services degrade, taxpayers have legitimate questions about who County government leaders are hiring and how well they’re performing in those jobs.