Layoffs, tax hikes proposed for Cook County budget

October 25, 2011

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Updated 10/25/11 at 12:26 p.m.

Saying there's "nothing easy about this," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle officially unveiled a budget Tuesday that calls for tax increases, cuts to public safety departments and more than 1,000 layoffs to help close a projected $315 million budget hole.

The proposed spending plan calls for $52 million in "revenue enhancements," including taxes on beer, tobacco products and vehicle sales, and a new $4.75 parking charge at county courthouses.

Preckwinkle is also planning to cut costs by privatizing custodial services, laying off 1,057 county workers, decreasing the population in Cook County's jails and juvenile detention centers.

"I said that it wouldn't be easy," Preckwinle told Cook County commissioners Tuesday. "And I've kept my word. There's been nothing easy about this."

After much negotiation with the county health officials, Preckwinkle's budget proposal drastically reduces funding to the Cook County Health and Hospital System, which serves many low-income patients, from $276 million in 2011 to $252 million in 2012. Preckwinkle maintains the savings will come from reducing supply costs and renegotiating contracts, and will not affect patient care.

But Preckwinkle still has to contend with the county's union workers, whom she's trying to convince to accept unpaid holidays and days off in lieu of layoffs for about $40 million in savings. She said Tuesday that she's still meeting with union leaders, but wouldn't say how far apart they are in negotiations.

"I mean, last time, the deal with the unions was reached in the middle of the night as we were putting the budget together, so I can't predict," she said.

Preckwinkle's job in balancing the budget is made all the more difficult as she forges ahead with a quarter-cent roll back of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike that passed in 2008 under former Board President Todd Stroger. The repeal will mean approximately $55 million less revenue for the county in 2012.

Commissioner William Beavers, D-Chicago, who was a strong Stroger ally, dismissed Preckwinkle's budget as a non-starter.

"That one penny would have taken care of all of this," Beavers said. "But she's raising taxes more than the one penny. I can't see anybody on this board voting for this budget, unless something is wrong with them."