The Cook County Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved an $8.8 billion budget for 2023 after a heated debate about whether to fund initiatives involving the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office wants to earmark $11.4 million to potentially lease a helicopter and related equipment to help search for suspects, and nearly $275,000 to add two social workers to the county’s 911 dispatch center who would handle calls related to mental health instead of having sheriff’s deputies respond. The board has in the past overwhelmingly supported redirecting money away from policing as it oversees the county’s jail and vast court system.
Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who led the effort to call for building a budget that prioritizes Black lives, was one of two commissioners to vote against funding social workers with money that flows through the sheriff’s office. Johnson, who is running for Chicago mayor, said he champions the social worker initiative, but wants the money to come from a different source. He recalled how his older brother, Andrew ‘Leon’ Johnson III, whom he called his hero, struggled with drugs and untreated trauma more than 20 years ago.
“That ended horribly. His untimely death, dying alone in a space where there was no water, no electricity, homeless,” Johnson said during a committee meeting where commissioners debated the proposed budget. “When I drive home I see it on the West Side of Chicago in particular when we don’t have treatment and that the only response that typically is available is law enforcement.”
Commissioner Bridget Degnen, one of the sponsors behind the effort, said she’s working hard to find a different way to fund the positions in the future. But she supported funding the social workers through the sheriff’s office for now to get the program going.
The board meeting was also filled with goodbyes as four commissioners depart, including a trio who are each retiring after a combined 76 years on the board: Larry Suffredin, Peter Silvestri and Deborah Sims. The new board — still dominated by Democrats after the recent general election — takes the reins on Dec. 5.
Cook County is one of the biggest counties in the U.S., with a vast circuit court system, jail, public health system and large Medicaid health insurance plan called CountyCare for low-income and disabled residents. The majority of the county’s budget goes to public safety and health care.
The board added about $52 million to Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposed budget. Her financial blueprint includes no new taxes or tax hikes. Instead it’s flush with federal pandemic dollars that the county plans to use to make the region a more equitable place to live, work and play.
There’s a guaranteed income pilot that’s giving $500 a month to just over 3,000 residents for two years, as well as plans to erase medical debt and beef up behavioral health care during a pandemic that has exacerbated mental health needs.
Commissioners also unveiled a new initiative on Thursday. They want to connect domestic violence victims who have CountyCare health insurance with counseling, legal services and housing.
But much of this ambitious work hinges on having enough employees, and the county is struggling to hire workers. During recent budget hearings, commissioners peppered elected and appointed leaders with questions about how staffing shortages impacted their work, and how they’re able to provide services to the public.
For example, at the Cook County Public Defender’s office, it typically takes four to six months to hire an attorney. The office has resorted to bringing in students coming out of law school before they’re licensed.
“Our staffing issue will not be solved in one fiscal year, especially as we move out of the pandemic and our total caseloads continue to grow,” Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said during a previous hearing. “But a concerted long-term effort will help to get us there.”
The new budget takes effect on Dec. 1.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County at WBEZ.