Preckwinkle: $82M Budget Hole Means ‘Difficult Choices’ For Cook County | WBEZ
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Preckwinkle: $82M Budget Hole Means ‘Difficult Choices’ For Cook County

After a brutal budget season last year that included hundreds of layoffs, Cook County department leaders will likely feel financial pain yet again in 2019.

The county budget is projected to fall short about $82 million for the fiscal year that starts Dec. 1, according to a budget forecast released Tuesday by Democratic County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office. The good news for taxpayers: Preckwinkle expects no new fees or taxes. But they could be impacted because county departments, such as the Health and Hospitals System and the Sheriff’s Office, will have to make cuts.

“Needless to say it will be a challenging year,” said Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), who chairs the county board’s Finance Committee.

Still, Preckwinkle’s office highlighted that the gap is the smallest since she was elected in 2010.

The preliminary forecast for 2019 was part of Preckwinkle’s midyear review of county finances. Her office predicts the current fiscal year will end strong on Nov. 30. The government, which has a roughly $5.2 billion budget, expects to finish with a $600,000 surplus. 

Last year, Cook County eliminated more than 1,000 vacant jobs and laid off hundreds of workers to close a nearly $316 million budget gap. That was partly fueled by repealing the unpopular penny-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks, which blew a big hole in county finances

But the budget headaches won’t go away in 2019. County financial officials blame the expected shortfall on a variety of expenses that are growing faster than inflation. That includes health insurance costs for the county’s largely unionized workforce. 

The county health system is responsible for more than a third of the $81.8 million gap. That’s largely due to climbing expenses tied to booming enrollment in the system’s health insurance plan for poor and disabled people on Medicaid. The plan’s membership has swelled by 130 percent since last year.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, a frequent critic of the president, had some suggestions on how to solve the gap: Eliminate jobs with high turnover rates and get better at billing insurance companies for care the county health system provides. That’s something the health system is working on, and was underscored in a harsh inspector general report earlier this year.

“This is an opportunity for us to further rightsize things,” said Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat. 

Also on Tuesday, Preckwinkle’s office acknowledged the county is in settlement negotiations with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who oversees the county court system. He sued the president’s office after the County Board tried to eliminate around 150 jobs in his office as part of sweeping budget cuts. The layoffs never went through. It’s not clear what the financial impact of a settlement would be. 

A spokesman for Evans referred WBEZ to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the chief judge. A spokeswoman there said negotiations continue.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.

Correction: Due to an editor's error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that Commissioner Richard Boykin lives in Chicago. In fact, he lives in Oak Park and represents parts of Chicago's West Side and the near western suburbs.

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