Cook County facing $152M budget hole next year

June 27, 2013

WBEZ/Jian Chung Lee
File: Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle.

Cook County is staring down an estimated deficit of “just $152 million” for the next fiscal year, a budget hole that Board President Toni Preckwinkle says is the smallest in years, though she is not ruling out some tax hikes or layoffs to close the gap.

“We’re trying to close a $152 million gap, in an environment in which we’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit,” Preckwinkle said Thursday, as her office released preliminary numbers for the fiscal year beginning in December 2014. “So we’re gonna have tough choices ahead of us.”

The Chicago Democrat, who announced earlier this month that she’s running for a second term in office, vowed that she wouldn’t raise property or sales taxes to close the gap, but declined to give specifics on what kind of tax or fee hikes might be looming.

“Well, we’re trying to put everything on the table,” Preckwinkle said.

The 2014 budget will get a $74 million boost thanks to a provision in Obamacare to expand Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor.

But that shot in the arm is more than offset by $166 million in rising costs and a projected $60 million drop in revenue next year, thanks in part to Preckwinkle's rollback of her predecessor’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, and recent changes to her controversial “use tax” on some items purchased outside of Cook County.

Additionally, the county’s juvenile detention center is being saddled $12 million more in annual costs, thanks to a recent state law that allows 17-year-olds to be tried as minors, rather than as adults, Preckwinkle said.

Though Preckwinkle is trying to make public safety a hallmark of her re-election campaign, there are already signs of possible budget tension between her and Cook County’s Sheriff and State’s Attorney.

Sheriff Tom Dart, who has clashed with Preckwinkle’s administration over budget issues in the past, is asking for more than $490 million in his budget for next year. That’s about $13 million more than the president is recommending, according to budget documents released Thursday.

The president’s office also revealed Thursday that the county must come up with $18 million to end the current fiscal year in the black. Preckwinkle said her office will eliminate 20 percent of the vacant positions in her office, and urged other elected officials to do the same.

That request didn’t sit well with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office said they need all the bodies they can get.

“We have approximately 20 Assistant State's Attorney positions that are technically vacant at the moment, but we have extended job offers to law students for all of those positions already and will be filling those sorely-needed attorney positions over the summer and into the fall,” said Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly.

Three other Cook County officials in charge of smaller officers - Treasurer Maria Pappas, Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough and Clerk David Orr - said they’d be willing to make the cuts. Others either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

Preckwinkle faced a nearly half billion dollar deficit when she first took office, but has whittled that down over last two the years through myriad tax and fee hikes, as well as other belt-tightening measures. She helped balance this year’s budget with higher so-called “sin” taxes on tobacco, guns and gambling.

Still, the president’s budget sailed through the County Board last year, with the single no vote coming from then-Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, who was kicked out of office after being convicted of tax evasion this spring.

Alex Keefe covers politics for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.