With her re-election bid just a month away, Cook County Board Chair Toni Preckwinkle unveiled an $8.75 billion budget on Thursday that is free of any new taxes or fees. The announcement comes the same day as applications open for the county’s $42 million Guaranteed Income Pilot — one of several federal COVID-19 relief-funded initiatives she announced over the course of of the past year approximately.
Preckwinkle, a Democrat, is running for a fourth term as County Council leader against Republican candidate Bob Fioretti and Libertarian Thea Tsatsos. “Through sound financial management, we are working to create a better tomorrow that does not come at the expense of today,” Preckwinkle said in a press release. “Faced with multiple economic risks, Cook County saw its bond rating upgraded, continued to make additional pension payments to put the county’s pension fund on a path to sustainability, and built a manageable reserve fund. .”
This summer, the county projected the smallest variance in Preckwinkle’s tenure, $18.2 million, and said at the time it had no plans for increased taxes or fees. Thanks to higher-than-expected revenue numbers — including $124 million more than it expected from sales taxes — the county didn’t need to make cuts to close that gap and also eliminated its tax on wheels, starting next June.
The $8.75 billion figure represents a 7.8% increase over this year’s budget. That’s almost three times the size of Preckwinkle’s budget ten years ago. That growth, county officials said in a Wednesday afternoon briefing, has been driven by the expanding mandate of its flagship health care system and steadily rising pension payments. The county’s budgeted workforce grew by just over 3% during this period, but not all of these positions are filled. Of more than 23,500 budgeted positions in 2022, 4,000 are vacant.
Fioretti, a former Chicago city councilwoman who previously ran against Preckwinkle as a Democrat, claimed in a phone interview Thursday that she’s “raising the size of Cook County government again.” When the government grows, the costs and the burden on the taxpayers increase. The roughly 4,000 vacancies in the budget should “not be filled or frozen at this time,” he said.
The county has budgeted $491 million for pensions in 2023. Of that amount, $291 million is an additional payment the county has made over several years to support the pension fund’s lagging funded ratio. If these additional payments continue, finance officials estimate that the fund will have 100% of the money it needs to pay benefits by 2043. Without these additional payments – made annually as part of a agreement between the county and the fund’s board – it is expected to be insolvent by 2055. The county has also set aside $140 million in a stabilization fund that it can draw down in budget years less abundant.
“That’s something few governments can say and it’s virtually unheard of when it comes to municipal pensions in our state,” Preckwinkle said during his Thursday budget speech on county pension health, adding that the county has also reduced its outstanding. during his tenure of more than $700 million.
Yet his speech — which spoke of low trust in government and the challenges facing democracy — also referred to preparing the county for the “difficult days ahead.”
“We absolutely fear a recession,” said Dean Constantinou, the county’s deputy chief financial officer, said Wednesday, adding that the county was bolstering some reserve funds as a bulwark against such a recession. “We project that if there were an industry recession, it would cost the county about $100 million.”
Federal pandemic relief money continues to be a mainstay of support for the budget: Of the roughly $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money, the county has allocated about $25 million in 2021 and $320 million in 2022, and plans to spend $270 million in 2023. The county estimates it will have another $300 million to spend between 2024 and 2026.
Among the planned spending of time-limited federal dollars: $75 million for violence prevention, a $12 million program to eliminate medical debt for qualified county residents, a $14 million program to expand homeless services for Cook County Health patients, $10 million to address brownfields in suburban neighborhoods to spur development, and a $20 million program with Greater Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for the stormwater management.
The bailout money will also fund the county’s Guaranteed Income Program, which aims to provide monthly payments of $500 to 3,250 residents for two years.
Fioretti said he opposes the cash-out program because it does not have sufficient requirements for participants.
“There is no professional training, no effort, no ability to make them actors in a system here. They just give $500 and nothing is required of the individual,” he said, adding that he thinks it won’t do much to tackle the 13% poverty rate of the county.
The unconditional approach is exactly what is needed, Preckwinkle previously said: “This bureaucracy is not due to evidence, but rather to how our society views people in poverty and whether they have the character or ability to make decisions for themselves.To put it plainly, this paternalistic view is both inaccurate and unnecessary.
Fioretti raised broader concerns about the use of federal COVID-19 relief money, saying it gives the public a “false sense of fiscal security” and should be closely scrutinized. “There are ways to cut that budget and serve people,” he said.
County Commissioner Bill Lowry said this budget will likely be one of the easiest to pass, thanks in large part to the availability of ARPA funds. “The other thing, and I can’t stress this enough: As the budget continues to grow, we’re seeing that the dollars that make up the budget are being used in a really impactful, long-term, generational way.”
Lowry, whose district includes county-run Provident Hospital, was also pleased to hear in Preckwinkle’s speech that the hospital is preparing for the impending return of ambulances “for the first time in over 10 years.”
A Provident redesign was recently put on hold for the third time, in part due to cost overruns.
Since many county vacancies are at Cook County Health, Fioretti said he would scrap plans to reorganize and expand Provident and instead repurpose the buildings as an inpatient mental health facility.
County officials expect the health fund to take a hit: it’s unclear when. The state is expected to restart annual Medicaid eligibility reviews — known as redeterminations — in the coming months. County officials say they don’t know when that would happen, but are budgeting for it to happen Jan. 1.
This new determination would likely result in thousands of current patients on Cook County Health’s Medicaid-backed insurance plan, CountyCare, losing coverage and the county losing reimbursements. This redetermination process could also send more uninsured patients to hospitals and clinics in Cook County, which would increase the costs of charitable care.
Budget officials expect CountyCare membership to fall from about 426,500 in December to just under 366,000 next November.
The formal introduction of Preckwinkle’s budget on Thursday will be followed by weeks of hearings and negotiations with the county council.