Despite enormous COVID pressures, budget includes no increases to existing taxes.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday presented a proposed $6.9 billion Executive Budget Recommendation for Fiscal Year 2021 equitably addressing the fallout of the pandemic without increasing taxes or cutting critical services.
“This 2021 budget is balanced with no tax increases or the need for immediate federal help. This has been in part possible because we have avoided quick fixes and one-time solutions,” said President Preckwinkle. “We’ve done the hard work and heavy lifting. We’ve instilled sound fiscal discipline since taking office. We were not immune to the financial pressures of the pandemic but we did the hard work to avoid the need to raise taxes.”
Despite the enormous budget pressures caused by the pandemic, the $6.9 billion recommendation continues to be driven by several policy goals to enhance Cook County’s services to ensure vital health care access for vulnerable residents, foster a fair justice system aimed at violence prevention and reducing recidivism, provide economic development to under-resourced communities, and invest in infrastructure while promoting long-term fiscal stability.
Preckwinkle noted it was a mighty effort to close a $222.2 million gap in the general fund without the need for new revenue. A combination of financially responsible efforts, the use of rainy day savings, expenditure holdbacks, federal relief, higher than previously forecasted revenue, and vacancy reductions helped close a substantial general fund budget hole. With the closing of a $187 million budget gap at the hospital system, Cook County closed a $400 million deficit without the need for new taxes.
To close the General Fund gap, personnel expenses were reduced by approximately $61.3 million by eliminating 659 vacant full-time equivalent positions. The County’s position count is now under 22,000 employees for the first time since President Preckwinkle took office. This means departments are being asked to do more with less during these exceedingly difficult times. Additionally, the County is relying on a one-time transfer of $77 million from its General Fund reserves that under normal circumstances would not be touched.
Higher than previously forecasted revenue figures primarily found in newer tax sources like cannabis, gaming and online sales, and $50 million in reimbursements through the federal CARES Act funding are the remaining elements that have helped balance this budget without the need for taxes.
Cook County Health also had their hands full closing a $187 million gap. Through expenditure reductions, a $30 million dollar additional tax allocation from the County, revenue from increased CountyCare membership, renegotiated reimbursement rates and modified direct payments from the State of Illinois, Cook County Health was able to close this gap while continuing to provide world-class services during the pandemic.
Preckwinkle also called attention to the fact that Cook County has provided supplemental pension payments of almost $1.6 billion dollars above the required contribution since 2016, significantly reducing the unfunded pension liability with another supplemental pension payment of over $300 million this year included in the budget.
“As local governments across this country struggle with pension liabilities, we continue to put more and more into the system," said President Preckwinkle. "This budget includes more supplemental funding, as the County takes important steps addressing this challenge. We are not kicking the can down the road, not even during a pandemic. I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish in terms of supplementing and supporting our pension obligations despite dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus.”
Preckwinkle highlighted a number of important items and investments in the budget that will be moving forward in the coming year:
- The Bureau of Economic Development will be investing an additional $20 million in aid to our business communities and residents in greatest need, with $5 million to expand support for small businesses, increase coaching and training for M/WBEs, build an integrated small business ecosystem, and catalyze innovation in manufacturing. $2 million of the additional investment will go towards workforce training to meet the needs of high demand occupations and upskilling displaced workers. $13 million is going to expand housing assistance and support for legal aid and foreclosure mediation while providing residents with food, utility and direct cash assistance.
- Cook County will invest an additional $20 million for programs related to justice reform through the Justice Advisory Council (JAC). $5 million will go to various anti-recidivism, violence prevention, restorative justice and youth development programming. $5 million will go to housing for those being released from the jail population and on electronic monitoring facing housing insecurity and $10 million to additional investments to increase access to justice programs and services.
- $5.8 million in capital investments for the continued development of an integrated property tax system that will make doing business with the County a lot easier for taxpayers.
- With approvals from the Cook County and Metra Boards, we are targeting January for the fair transit pilot program launch to assist residents in the southern portion of our County with more frequent, affordable and accessible transportation options and ensure that residents on the South Side of Chicago and in the south suburbs have better access to transit.
“While we can’t say with certainty what happens next with the coronavirus, I know this is a budget that works to address the fallout of the pandemic and we will stand up to any future challenges as one Cook County,” Preckwinkle concluded in her budget address to the Board of Commissioners.
All FY2021 budget information and a public hearing schedule has been posted to the Cook County website, allowing the public to review documents and engage with the President’s Office directly. A new interactive budget website has been launched and provides interactive historic data and detailed budget information. This immersive budget portal will enhance residents’ access and understanding of budget information and County finances. Starting today, residents can also now submit budget questions here.