Cook County’s budget next year would grow to a whopping $8 billion under a proposal revealed by board President Toni Preckwinkle, whose administration cast the balanced plan as another sign the county will weather the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial hits.
The $8.04 billion spending recommendation — over $1 billion more than Preckwinkle’s final budget for 2021 — would not include any new taxes, fines, fees or layoffs, she said in a Thursday speech. In fact, the county’s workforce would grow 7% from 2020 levels to just over 23,000 positions — a level not seen since the earlier years of Preckwinkle’s time as county board president.
“Today, I can say that because of our decade of prudent fiscal management, we are once again in a position not to raise taxes,” Preckwinkle said. “We will not hit residents in their pocketbooks during these uncertain and unimaginable times.”
And thanks to a combination of federal stimulus funds, unexpected revenue and reduced spending, the plan would fill in a $121.4 million projected deficit for next year. It was a stark difference from this year’s $410 million shortfall that led to Preckwinkle tapping into reserves and laying off workers to balance the budget.
“I can stand here today and say a decade of tough decisions and strategic management, along with federal assistance, has helped create this $8 billion balanced budget,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s a budget that reflects our values, our commitment to advancing equity and creates a path to an even stronger Cook County.”
In total, Cook County will receive $1 billion from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. That pool of money will be evenly split across 2022, 2023 and 2024. For the $333 million in next year’s spending plan, about $100 million will make up revenue loss plus “one-time and sustainable” hiring costs, with the rest going toward community recovery programs, according to her budget presentation.
Some of those programs would include $80 million in cash assistance, housing support, small business grants and jobs training. Other buckets include promoting mental health support services, public health and violence prevention.
Nearly half of the $8 billion proposal would go toward the health fund that encompasses, among other things, two safety-net hospitals and the county’s sizable Medicaid health insurance care plan also known as CountyCare. The $501 million jump in the health fund from this year would largely stem from increased CountyCare costs.
The hospitals, Stroger and Provident, suffered layoffs under this year’s budget. Most of the almost 1,600 additional positions in Preckwinkle’s new plan would go toward the health system and public health. Other new jobs would go toward finance administration.
When asked by reporters Wednesday whether there should be concern over the increase in the county’s full-time equivalent positions — an area Preckwinkle was previously praised for paring down, she said, “We have to understand where we’re staffing up. One is in our health care system.”
She also said she was not worried about using one-time federal funds to augment mental health services.
“Budgets reflect your values, and certainly we’ve made a commitment in our health care system and in the county to invest more in behavioral health services over the last decade as the city basically withdrew from the arena,” Preckwinkle said.
As for the general fund, which covers public safety and administration agencies in the county, finance officials are expecting $1.98 billion in revenue, an $85 million increase from this year. That’s because of non-property tax revenues such as recovering tourism and sales taxes, as well as more fees paid from the housing market and the court system opening back up.
The criminal justice system would again make up the bulk of the general fund spending under the tentative budget, with the sheriff’s office using 30% of funds, followed by the offices of the chief judge, state’s attorney, circuit court clerk and public defender.
Long-term, finance officials said the county’s prognosis appeared brighter than it did a few years ago. Preckwinkle’s 2022 plan includes a new pension contribution of $325 million and up to $20 million in pension reserves. If the county stays on the current track, it is slated to have a fully funded pension by 2046.
The final budget vote is slated for November’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners.