Toni Preckwinkle's First Year Speech – City Club of Chicago – December 6, 2011

One year ago today, I was sworn in as the 34th Cook County Board President.

This was after more than two years spent traveling throughout the County, learning firsthand about the issues facing us, speaking with thousands of residents and hearing their concerns. Two years of long hours and hard work.  And that’s before I even walked in the door!

Our County needed a new direction. For too long Cook County had been allowed to drift without a strong sense of purpose, responsibility or accountability

I knew this undertaking was going to be difficult. But Cook County residents deserved someone who was willing to work hard for them.

Government can become paralyzed by patronage, partisanship and the sheer complexity of our problems. But I’ve always believed that if you had a vision of what you wanted, and were willing to work hard, you could make it a reality.

It was with this frame of mind that we went to work. We acted immediately and decisively.  We encouraged collaboration and cooperation from every sector. We worked with our Board of Commissioners and separately elected officials. We engaged the support of the Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA) to bring on board unprecedented pro bono private sector assistance. We engaged the civic and foundation community to pursue reform.

And today, as we commemorate one year office, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish.  We overwhelmingly passed two budgets in nine months; we instituted performance-based management to demand more accountability from our operations and our employees; we focused on critical public safety reform; and we worked to strengthen the health care system while reducing the subsidy from the County. In short, we launched a campaign to reinvent County government. I want to thank the elected officials who have supported these efforts. I want to recognize those who are with us today:

  • Chairman Daley

  • Commissioner Butler

  • Commissioner Gainer

  • Commissioner Garcia

  • Commissioner Gorman

  • Commissioner Fritchey

  • Commissioner Silvestri

  • Commissioner Sims

  • Commissioner Steele

  • And the Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown

And I want to take a moment to thank everyone in my Administration for the hard work they did to get us here.   Several of them are here with us today – my Chief of Staff Kurt Summers;

  • Superintendent of the Forest Preserves Arnold Randall

  • Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly,

  • Chief Information Officer Greg Wass, our Bureau Chief of Economic Development of Maria Saldana;

  • Bureau Chief  of Human Resources Maureen O’Donnell, and last, but definitely not least – our finance team - Chief Financial Officer Tariq Malhance and Budget Director Andrea Gibson 

Fiscal Responsibility

Our first step was to begin to put our financial house in order. On December 6, 2010, we were already a week into the 2011 fiscal year. Yet, the County still didn’t have a budget or even a plan for one. In roughly two months, we produced and passed a budget that closed a $487 million gap.

Our first budget included our commitment to roll back the Stroger sales tax increase that has been a burden to our families and our businesses. And because of that commitment - we will save County residents an additional $440 million by 2013.

Early on in this process, I stated that no one would be alone and no one would be absolved. And I meant it.

I was also determined that the President’s office should lead by example as we worked through this financial crisis. In our first year, in the offices under the president, we made a 17% cut to the overall operating budget. Within my own office, we cut staff by 30 percent. We reduced non-personnel costs by 51 percent. On top of that, I took a 10 percent pay cut, which mu husband originally proposed, although I’m not sure he still thinks this is a good idea. To date, we have reduced the staff of the President’s Office by 50 percent.


The first step in having a disciplined budget is having a disciplined budget process. That is why, as soon as we passed the FY2011 budget – after a very long evening for everyone – we quickly began working on next year’s budget.

With a $315 million deficit, our second budget proved even more difficult. The figure may have been smaller, but situation was more challenging as we lacked many short-term options. There was no longer any low-hanging fruit.  In fact, in this year’s budget, you will see less than 1% of the overall budget is made of one-time solutions, such as the TIF surplus. Instead we made strategic structural changes – including 800 layoffs.

That’s one of the toughest parts of this job. As I said – I had no illusions about the difficulty of this job. But I never imagined I would walk in the door and in the first year have to put over 1,000 people out of a job. I know that most of these people are ordinary, hard-working residents and it’s difficult to accept that.

Totaling $800 million in savings to the taxpayers, the past two budgets reaffirm my commitment to fiscal responsibility within Cook County government. It’s a commitment I am determined to keep and that determination is bolstered by the support I’ve received from the residents. Our residents clearly want a new direction for County government and it starts with responsible spending and accountability. They want leadership from the County that is willing to make tough decisions – and we have had to make our share of those already.

But it’s not enough to simply cut Government; we have to rethink the way it works. I’ve long said that government at every level has two main obligations – to provide good services and to do so as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After being elected, I asked a diverse group of business, civic and community leaders to come together. Led by the Civic Consulting Alliance, we secured over $5 million in pro bono services to assist in comprehensive reform efforts. From this collaborative approach, we implemented wide-ranging reforms. We instituted a long overdue desk and compensation audit; transformed our IT systems; improved our purchasing processes. We even increased our energy efficiency.

With the help of our pro bono partners, we provided training, resources and additional support to County agencies to drastically improve their performance management through our STAR (Set Targets. Achieve Results) initiative. We’re holding all agencies, including ourselves, accountable by requiring the preparation of a quarterly report to establish measurable goals and detail their plans to meet these goals.

The idea here is fairly simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in proven performance. This is a strategy that most businesses and organizations already employ.

For Cook County, it means that for the first time we are building the infrastructure for tomorrow.

However, our STAR initiative does more than just provide the data necessary for this type of management – it ensures the environment for the collaboration needed to produce the structural changes we envision.

For the first time, all of the County’s public safety agencies are sharing the same data -  using it to set cross-department goals and working together to achieve them. We spend too much money detaining nonviolent offenders. We are increasing alternatives to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring, for these offenders. At the same time, we are investing in community-based alternatives to reduce the number of our youth detained in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. We are focusing on expanding and strengthening pre-trial services; we are pursuing bond court reform.

Unprecedented collaboration is clearing the path for meaningful reform across County agencies.

It’s been more 30 years since Cook County issued its tax bills on time. Through the collaboration and cooperation of the property and taxation agencies, we are working with the constellation of separately elected officials – by increasing funding to the Board of Review and committed our IT staff - to make this a reality in 2012.

None of this would have been possible if we hadn’t also reformed the way we worked together. Despite divisions and disagreements, hesitations and fears – we persisted.

Because we chose to move forward as one County.

Through the leadership of this office and with your help, we are shaping a better Cook County. A more responsible Cook County.


And as a result, we are more equipped to keep the promise of health care to those uninsured and underinsured.

We are working with the Cook County Health and Hospital System to increase its effectiveness and efficiency and improve the provision of health care.

This is more important now than ever before.

In our current economic climate, too many individuals are losing their jobs, their health coverage and their hope. All while the costs of health care continue to rise. Now, even as health care reform promises to reduce the pressures faced by so many Americans, it challenges the Cook County health system to be more competitive. Historically our health care system largely served as the option for those who had no other choice. We can no longer afford to be the system of last resort.  We have world-renowned doctors and state-of-the-art facilities. We have to make sure our system operates effectively and efficiently enough to support them.  Because, the question we will soon face is this: if individuals have the choice – will they continue to choose Cook County? Or will we become a system for those who fall through the social safety net and the undocumented for whom we get no reimbursement?

On October 6th, a new Chief Executive Officer came to the Cook County Health and Hospital System – Dr. Ram Raju. And since then, we have forged a partnership focused on realizing the potential within the health care system. Dr. Raju has already exhibited a profound willingness for collaboration. It is because we worked together through the budget process that we were able to reduce the County’s subsidy without impacting patient care. Thank you Dr. Raju.

It is through a commitment to this collaborative process that we have been able to make historic changes, all in the interest of building a sustainable financial future for County government.

Since declaring my intentions for this position, I knew one of the biggest challenges of this job would be in the culture change we would need to inspire. During the campaign, County employees would come up to me – only identifying themselves as County employees – and say, “I’m working hard, but it’s frustrating that the person next to me is reading paper all day”.

We approached this by first, making our standards and our goals very clear. Second, we instituted measures to ensure accountability and responsibility to these principles.

On day one, I laid out our four tenets: fiscal responsibility, innovative leadership, transparency and accountability and improved services. These four basic principles shape every one of our decisions. We published our full transition report – offering employees and residents alike the opportunity to see our roadmap for the future. In a similar vein, we have posted a one year report card on our website as of this morning. And for their hard work preparing this report, I want to thank my policy team Neil Khare and Andrew Schwarm.

On day two, we began enacting measures to ensure responsibility and accountability to these principles and goals. I issued an executive order mandating that all the President’s Office employees be required to participate in ethics training. And even with our fiscal challenges, I increased the funding and then the authority of the Office of the Inspector General. In a year when most offices had double-digit percentage cuts, knowing the importance of holding our government accountable, we allotted a 31% increase to the Office of the Inspector General.

Every employee will understand their responsibilities when they work for the people of Cook County and the Office of the Cook County Board President.

As Cook County Board President, I am committed to creating a culture of competence and dedication. I’m committed to engaging and drawing on the talents from the diversity of Cook County in order to deliver a more effective and efficient County government. This is not just about my time in office – I want to leave a legacy of professionalism and accountability.

We’re setting a new foundation for Cook County government to move forward. And because of that, we are truly able to push the boundaries on what had for too long been the status quo.

We forged a partnership with Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago that has already saved $11 million for the City and County. We project $66-$140 million in savings for the two governments over the next few years.

Together, we are working to improve the services for all of the County’s residents. Most recently, we have come together over a shared commitment to better serve our unemployed and underemployed.

We know that the only way to have real job security in the future, to get a good job with  growing income, is to have real skills and the ability to learn news ones.

Under the leadership of Cook County Works Director Karin Norington-Reaves, we will streamline today’s patchwork of training programs between the City and the County and make them a source of new skills for our residents.

This approach will enable companies to find and train employees to fit the jobs of the 21st century. Neither geographic boundaries nor systemic inefficiencies will be obstacles. When a new business moves into the area, they need a workforce that is ready to meet their needs. We also need to communicate to businesses that they can and should hire locally.


Though we are making a difference, our work has just begun.

The other day, I was speaking with someone about the past year in office. We talked about our two budgets, the sales tax rollback and performance management, our efforts around pension reform – and he asked, “Isn’t that enough?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Because I know that we have a lot more work ahead of us.

And so today, I resolve to continue the journey of reform and renewal; to guarantee health care for all, to find new ways to reduce the jail population and provide services for those suffering from substance abuse issues.

We must continually renew these commitments. I have always held that change is possible – with collaboration and cooperation. Over the next three years, I will continue to work with the Board of Commissioners and the other County elected officials to bring real, County-wide reform to the residents of Cook County.

And that’s what keeps me going. I’m often asked – given all the problems, the challenges, why would you even want this job? And do you actually like it? Many of you have probably already heard me say that, as a history teacher, I believe democracy is both the best and most fragile form of government in the world for the same reason – it requires an active, engaged citizenry.

What keeps me going is hearing from someone on the street or a person in an audience like this one; some say they have a new sense of faith in this government; or that they appreciate the work we are doing. I am grateful for both their support and encouragement.

But I’m a teacher – so I’m equally grateful for those who come with questions. It means they are engaged; they share my investment in this government, that has been allowed to operate in the shadows for too long.

We know we have had to face hard truths and take strong action. It is our shared belief in a better Cook County; our shared commitment to reform and our shared pride at our accomplishments that will continue to move us forward.

Thank you.


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