Flush with federal dollars to help communities ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cook County commissioners on Thursday approved their largest budget ever.
The massive roughly $8 billion spending plan for 2022 focuses on making the county a more equitable place to live and work. That’s a constant theme for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The 17-member county board approved the budget unanimously — by lunchtime.
“No new taxes, no new fees. No program cutbacks or personnel cutbacks. How could you vote against it?” said Commissioner Peter Silvestri, a Republican who represents west and northwest suburbs. “Any budget that is approved when the day light is still on is a good thing.”
The county typically spends the majority of its money on public safety and health care. The government runs Cook County Jail, a sprawling court system and a vast health care system that is by far the biggest safety net in the region for people who are low-income or uninsured. The county also runs a large Medicaid health insurance plan, covering more than 400,000 people who are poor or disabled.
Cook County’s new budget starts Dec. 1. After years of layoffs and vacant jobs, the county plans to hire more than 1,000 new workers to help the region rebuild after COVID-19, for a total workforce of more than 23,000 people. There are several key priorities, such as helping more county residents with rent, expanding access to mental health services, and making virtual court hearings more accessible.
The county also plans to launch a guaranteed income pilot in 2022, where people would get money on a recurring basis, like a monthly paycheck, to help cover basic necessities like rent and food. While the county is still studying how to implement the program, who would qualify and how much money they would receive, the goal is to get cash to people next year, said Ammar Rizki, county chief financial officer.
The City of Chicago is launching a pilot, too, and plans to distribute $500 a month to about 5,000 low-income residents. Cook County’s pilot will likely focus on residents who live in the suburbs.
“The goal is to avoid that duplication of effort,” Rizki said. “We want to make sure that we are maximizing this for a region.”
The budget also includes a new initiative to operate the county’s domestic violence court 24 hours a day, seven days a week, beginning on April 1. Commissioners Alma Anaya and Dennis Deer were particularly behind the effort. Two years ago, Anaya revealed “horrific violence in my own home” as she pushed the county to further help domestic violence victims.
To help entice more people to sign up for jury duty, as of June 1, the rate will essentially double to $30 a day, plus $5 a day for a transportation stipend.
The Civic Federation, a Chicago-based fiscal watchdog group, supported Preckwinkle’s proposed budget. But the organization also raised questions about certain aspects of the spending plan, including moving forward with replacing Provident Hospital on the South Side.
“It is important to establish that the reversal in strategy related to what was originally going to be an outpatient facility is the right move for the future of care at Provident,” the Civic Federation wrote in a new analysis.
While residents on the South Side have dramatically less access to medical care than in richer parts of Chicago, many hospitals are focused on expanding outpatient care. The idea is to help prevent people from getting sick in the first place, and that expensive hospital stays should be the last resort.
During a briefing with reporters on Thursday, Israel Rocha Jr., CEO of Cook County’s health system, defended the county’s plans to replace Provident, and invest in services in the meantime. That includes reopening the hospital’s intensive care unit for the sickest patients, and welcoming back ambulances to the emergency department.
“The communities of color need to have access in those communities, and we fully recognize and support building that,” Rocha said.
The majority of patients at Provident are Black, low-income and elderly, state records show.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.