Balanced proposal preserves essential public health and safety services
The Cook County Board of Commissioners today approved a FY 2017 $4.4 billion operating budget that confronts the County’s financial challenges while avoiding debilitating cuts to public safety and public health services. Separately, the Board also approved a $475.7 million capital budget to fund critical investments in the County’s infrastructure and equipment.
The balanced budget follows months of work to close a $174.3 million shortfall that was projected in June, driven by factors including gridlock over a state budget, growing legacy debt service costs, flat or declining revenue streams, and increased technology spending needed to upgrade antiquated and outdated systems.
“Developing this budget has been a grueling experience,” Preckwinkle said. “Almost exactly a year ago I cautioned that FY 2017 would be a challenge and I believe we have responded with a responsible and responsive budget. We are making more than $70 million in cuts, including reducing our headcount by 1%, in order to close the $174.3 million preliminary forecast gap.”
Although the County has a diverse revenue base, expenditures continue to rise over time due to inflationary pressures while natural growth in revenue struggles to keep pace or, in some cases, is declining. Minus funds dedicated to increased pension appropriations, operating funds for the General and Health Fund revenue would decline by $62 million absent any new revenue initiatives.
Additionally, the County’s property tax levy historically has not kept pace with inflation, and, in fact, has lost some $300 million in comparable value since the 1990s. This confluence of factors made structurally balancing the budget difficult, Preckwinkle said, and forced the decision to find new revenue in the form of a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages sold in the County.
The budget addresses long-term fiscal stability by reducing structural expenditures while preserving essential public health and public safety services. The County will be reducing its overall workforce, shrinking its real estate footprint, consolidating warehouse space, and decreasing the operating tax allocation to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System (CCHHS) by $10 million to $111.5 million.
The decline in the CCHHS allocation represents a more than 70%, or $280 million, reduction from the allocation the year before Preckwinkle took office, and follows continued progress by CCHHS in reinventing itself as a healthcare system of choice, which now serves more insured than uninsured patients.
The penny-per-fluid-ounce tax on sweetened beverages sold in Cook County was approved last week. As part of this new tax, the President has committed to not raising any other taxes for at least the next two fiscal years. Yet even with this new initiative, revenues are essentially flat in the General and Health Funds in 2017 versus 2016 levels absent additional pension funding.
Revenues obtained from the sweetened beverage tax will allow the County to double its investment in community-based anti-violence efforts and avoid additional layoffs in the public safety arena. In FY 2017, the County will dedicate $6 million to programs that center on anti-violence, anti-recidivism and restorative justice initiatives.
Noting the need for shared sacrifice and a balanced approach to closing the preliminary budget gap, the FY2017 budget includes nearly equal amounts of revenue increases and expense reductions. The County is proposing $78.5 million in expenditure reductions and cuts while the sweetened beverage tax is expected to generate $73.7 million in the coming year.
Preckwinkle said that in addition to position reductions and new revenue to support critical programs and services, the County will continue making important investments to modernize and reshape Cook County government. Long-needed investments in technology to provide better services to residents will continue and the County will soon demolish old or underutilized tiers on the Cook County Jail campus while continuing to reduce the pre-trial detainee population. Since she took office, Preckwinkle has worked with public safety stakeholders to reduce the County Jail’s confined detainee population by about 25%.
All budget information has been posted to the Cook County budget website, allowing the public to review documents and engage with the President’s Office directly. To view the budget website, please go to cookcountyil.gov/budget/.