Without Soda Tax, Sheriff’s Office May Lay Off 1,000 Employees | WBEZ
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Without Soda Tax, Sheriff’s Office May Lay Off 1,000 Employees

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the largest single-site jail in the country, might have to lay off nearly 1,000 employees as a result of a budget shortfall after a judge put a hold on the county’s sweetened-beverage tax.

With that revenue now in limbo, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced an across the board 10 percent cut in the county’s 2018 budget.

For the sheriff’s office, that could mean the elimination of 15 percent of its workforce, or 925 positions, said Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart.

“Those would obviously have a very significant impact on our operations, on us and our ability to keep the jail safe — and to keep the streets of the county safe, including our work in the City of Chicago,” Smith said. “We are working to identify other areas where there can be cost savings. We recognize the significant challenges that President Preckwinkle’s office has in terms of dealing with the shortfall that will occur as a result of the tax not being put in place.”

Of the 925 positions, 377 work in the jail or electronic monitoring program; 173 in court services, and 212 in the police department, Smith said.

Smith said the department is looking at other ways to reduce costs that won’t impact public safety, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be layoffs.

“We’re certainly doing everything we can to make sure our operational divisions can continue to function,” Smith said.

The penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax was adopted by the county board last fall as a way to make up for a $175 million budget hole. Current figures showed the tax could generate $68 million in 2017 and $200 million in 2018.

But a handful of grocery stores and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association filed a temporary restraining order that claimed the tax was in violation of the Illinois constitution. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Kubasiak granted the restraining order last Friday — the day before the tax was to take effect.

Earlier this week, Preckwinkle’s budget director, Tonya Anthony, sent a memo outlining the new budget cuts.

“We are instituting a 10 percent holdback effective August 1 to last for the remainder of the fiscal year,” the memo read. “This holdback is in addition to the initial 3 percent holdback and the 1 percent personnel holdback implemented in May. Additionally, the Budget Office will not approve any requests to hire if adequate funding, after factoring in the additional holdback, is not available. We had counted on approximately $68 million to balance the [fiscal year 2017] budget and $200 million for [fiscal year 2018].”

The next court date on the restraining order is scheduled for July 12, but the state’s attorney’s office filed an appeal with the Illinois Appellate Court, which could rule earlier.  

Frank Shuftan, a Preckwinkle’s spokesman, said the county has to be prepared for the possibility of a lengthy legal battle.

“We have filed with the Appellate Court for rescinding the [temporary restraining order], but in any case we are likely looking at a lengthy and potentially complex legal road ahead,” Shuftan said in a statement. “The President believes it is essential to act quickly and confront this challenge.”

A previous version of this story misstated how much money is missing from Cook County's budget. The county needs to fill a $175 million budget hole. 

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