Preckwinkle Doesn’t Rule Out Layoffs To Close $49M Budget Gap

preckwinkle ms
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visits Morning Shift on April 24, 2019. Jason Marck / WBEZ
preckwinkle ms
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visits Morning Shift on April 24, 2019. Jason Marck / WBEZ

Preckwinkle Doesn’t Rule Out Layoffs To Close $49M Budget Gap

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says she’s back in the saddle after a tough loss in the Chicago mayoral race.

Thursday marks her first full board meeting since her resounding April 2 defeat to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot. Preckwinkle stopped by the Morning Shift Wednesday to chat about what’s ahead.

Among the big items in the coming months is shaping the county budget. The annual ritual is a delicate dance, with public hearings and elected county officials jockeying for more of the county’s money — while trying to avoid painful cuts or unpopular tax hikes.

Preckwinkle said she’s projecting a $49 million shortfall in the next fiscal year, which starts on Dec. 1. That gap is a lot less than in previous years.

Still, she’s not ruling out proposing layoffs.

“We had a challenge last fall, and we ended up cutting programs and services,” Preckwinkle said after the show on Wednesday. “We eliminated 1,000 positions. Some people got laid off. But we closed a lot of vacancies. And I presume that’s where we’ll start again. That’s where we always start, trying to figure out how we can cut expenses.”

The county is one of the biggest in the nation, with a more than $5 billion annual budget. County commissioners typically approve the budget in the fall.

Here’s an edited version with highlights of Preckwinkle’s conversation with Morning Shift host Jenn White.

On working with Lightfoot

Toni Preckwinkle: We work closely in the county with the mayor around violence issues and economic development, particularly around how we could use tax incentives to promote development in struggling parts of the city and the county. So, I presume that these issues — violence and economic development — will be ones that the city and the county will continue to collaborate around.

On running for another term

Jenn White: Is this your last term as cook county board president?

TP: You know, I’m going to work hard for the next three and a half years. We’ve got a lot on our plate. Our census effort is coming up immediately. Our economic development initiatives in the south suburbs, which are part of our effort to reduce inequality in our county and to lift up those parts of our county that are struggling. We talked about the public health system … [We] in the county and in the city have to work with [Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul] to do something about the flow of guns into Cook County from neighboring states — Indiana, Wisconsin — which have much more lax laws about purchasing weapons. And those weapons end up on the streets in the South and West sides of the city of Chicago and are a part of the challenge we face around violence.

On the 2020 census

TP: We’re about to go into a census period, and that’s critical both for the city and the county because many federal resources are on a per capita basis. One of the things that the county is going to begin taking up at the meeting on Thursday and the meeting in May is our census activity, our complete count activity. Neither the city nor the state at this point has allocated resources, but the county has. We put $2 million in the last budget for outreach and communications, and we’re going to begin the process of engaging our residents around the issue of the importance of participating in the census.

JW: How concerned are you about there possibly being a citizenship question on the census, and how will you work to address that if it does appear?

TP: I understand that Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor yesterday in the Supreme Court hearing outlined the concerns of many that we would reduce participation in the census if the citizenship question was there, and I think that’s definitely true. We need to be sure that all of our residents are counted regardless of their citizenship status, and a citizenship question I think discourages participation, so that’s a real challenge. And it just means that we have to redouble our efforts at the local level on the ground to be sure that people understand the importance of participating in the census.

On mental health services

TP: I think it’s important to understand that the county is moving in a different direction than the city. When I left the City Council, I think there were 12 mental health centers around the city. There are now five, so seven of them were closed. During that same interval, the county took I think the important and appropriate decision to expand its mental health services, its behavioral health services … We have a Medicaid expansion program called County Care, and County Care provides services now to 320,000 people who didn’t have coverage before or only had it sporadically … We included, in the menu of services that our patients had available to them, behavioral health services, including addiction and substance abuse counseling and services. So while the county has been expanding its footprint in this arena, the city has been withdrawing, and I think that’s not to the city’s credit. The city and the county need to work together to meet these challenges, and at the moment, it’s really only the county that’s been stepping up.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Libby Berry and Alex Keefe. Click play to hear the full conversation, which was produced by Meha Ahmad.