As Cook County recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, government leaders are preparing for a hiring spree after years of layoffs or not filling vacant jobs.
The county is receiving $1 billion from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, and in the coming months, plans to brainstorm how to spend the money. They’re doing so with an eye toward equity, for everything from helping people pay rent to boosting small businesses that had a devastating year.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and members of her financial team say they don’t yet know how many people they plan to hire. The county now has more than 21,000 employees.
“One of the largest considerations that we will make is what are the departments that need this funding in order to get that programming out, to get those initiatives staffed and the money into the communities,” said county budget director Annette Guzman. “We have three years to spend this money.”
County leaders disclosed plans to add to the payroll during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, where Preckwinkle kicked off the budget season. She unveiled the county’s preliminary budget forecast for the 2022 fiscal year, which starts on Dec. 1, and how Cook County might end the current fiscal year.
The county expects a $121.4 million budget gap in 2022 — among the smallest deficits in years — and will potentially use some of the $1 billion in federal dollars to help fill the hole. Preckwinkle said she isn’t planning any new tax hikes, or tax or fee increases — for now.
“It remains to be seen where we’ll end in our formal budget presentation,” Preckwinkle said.
She doesn’t typically release her proposed budget until October, and the full Cook County Board of Commissioners must approve it.
What happens between now and then is an annual ritual, where Preckwinkle will negotiate with elected and appointed county leaders who run the government’s public jail, courts, health system and more. And commissioners will weigh in.
Preckwinkle will be crafting a budget for the second time against the backdrop of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and as nurses at the county health system hold a one-day strike on Thursday over staffing issues they say jeopardize patients. The National Nurses Organizing Committee represents 1,250 county nurses. Another 2,500 county employees are threatening to strike indefinitely over better pay, among other issues.
Known as Cook County Health, the government runs two hospitals — flagship John H. Stroger Jr. on the Near West Side and Provident Hospital on the South Side — a network of clinics and a large Medicaid health insurance plan called CountyCare. Cook County Health is the biggest medical safety net by far in the region for people who are low-income or don’t have health insurance.
What’s driving a projected surplus during a pandemic
The county budget this year was nearly $7 billion, with health care and public safety making up the biggest chunks.
Despite the pandemic wreaking havoc on government budgets across the U.S, Cook County expects to end the current fiscal year on Nov. 30 with a projected roughly $90 million surplus. The county essentially brought in more money than expected, while spending less.
Guzman said that was mainly driven by the “robust housing market,” the frenzy during the pandemic that saw demand for homes outstrip supply. This translates to more money for the county because every time someone buys a home, they need to file a title with the county Recorder of Deeds’ office, the keeper of land records, said Ammar Rizki, the county’s chief financial officer.
The county also saved money by not hiring employees as fast, as the pandemic made it harder for even current employees to be engaged in their work, Preckwinkle said.
That year-end surplus includes contributions from Cook County Health. Interim chief business officer Andrea Gibson ticked off a host of reasons why: Cook County Health is getting better at collecting money it’s owed for treating patients. More people who have CountyCare health insurance are seeing doctors within the county health system instead of going elsewhere for care, which saves the county money.
And there’s this: CountyCare membership grew more than expected as people lost their jobs during the pandemic, and “fewer people are being knocked off” the Medicaid rolls by the state, Gibson said. CountyCare is the largest Medicaid health insurance plan in Cook County, state records show.
“If it’s one word, recovery”
Still, Cook County leaders expect a $121.4 million deficit in 2022.
With COVID-19 vaccination rates climbing, and the economy reopening, the health system expects more patients to start returning for medical care. At the same time, the county expects drug and lab costs to rise. Doubling as an insurance company, Cook County Health is essentially paid by the state to keep CountyCare enrollees healthy, and loses money if they don’t.
County leaders wouldn’t say how much the projected 2022 budget would be, but said it would be much larger than this year’s budget considering the $1 billion dollars from the feds, and the swelling membership in CountyCare. The health insurance plan now insures more than 400,000 people.
As Cook County digs out of the pandemic and makes plans for the future, leaders’ message going forward is this:
“If it’s one word, recovery,” Rizki said. “Making sure that we are recovering as a county, as a community, as a region from this pandemic.”
Cook County government plans to host a virtual public hearing at 6 p.m. on July 7. Residents can view the preliminary budget forecast at www.cookcountyil.gov/Budget.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.