Cook County approves nearly $7 billion budget and braces for yet ‘another tough budget year’ ahead

Cook County approves nearly $7 billion budget and braces for yet ‘another tough budget year’ ahead

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference at the County Building last month. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The County Board voted 17-0 to pass the amended spending plan, which includes funds for a new immigration unit within the public defender’s office and a monitor of spending related to proposed criminal and juvenile justice reforms.

On a unanimous vote, the Cook County Board approved a $6.9 billion budget with no new taxes and the promise of less than ten layoffs Tuesday — but acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic will still ensure “there’s a tough year ahead.”

The Board of Commissioners voted 17-0 to pass the amended spending plan, which includes funds for a new immigration unit within the public defender’s office and a monitor of spending by the Justice Advisory Council, which works with the sheriff and state’s attorney and other public safety officers to coordinate and implement proposed criminal and juvenile justice reforms.

The budget also maintains county-provided services at the Morton East Clinic for the next year.

Commissioner Alma Anaya, D-Chicago, advocated for maintaining those services at the high school in Cicero, arguing the clinic, she said, “has proven for the past 25 years to be a vital health care access point of services for its patients within the high school and social community” in part because of its understanding of the community it serves.

Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya last December.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file
Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya last December.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the 2021 budget, which covers the fiscal year starting Dec. 1, was made possible through “years of hard work, hard votes and fiscally responsible steps” her administration has taken to “reshape” the county.

Typically a no vote on proposed budgets, Commissioner Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park, voted yes Tuesday but warned his colleagues to be “mindful and vigilant” in determining how the county operates moving forward.

“The enormous challenges that lie ahead for Cook County will actually be next year, in budget year 2022,” Morrison said. “The obvious questions that lie ahead will be will we receive any federal assistance in the name of COVID … or will we be reckoning with deficits on our own, through our own means? That is a question that lies ahead for us, and that’s what we need to be vigilant on.”

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, left, in 2019; Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, in 2019.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times; Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, left, in 2019; Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, in 2019.

The 2022 fiscal year budget will take affect a year from now on Dec. 1, 2021.

Preckwinkle acknowledged in a news conference following the virtual meeting that the county could have its work cut out for it fiscally as the pandemic rages on.

“The pandemic will be with us into 2021 and, of course, that will have a financial impact as the economy is restricted to try to mitigate the spread of the disease,” Preckwinkle said. “So, I anticipate another tough budget year in 2021, and we won’t have the reserves that we were able to use this year to help meet some of the budget challenges, so, as some of the commissioners predicted there’s a tough year ahead.”

Preckwinkle pointed to the county’s Stroger Hospital as an example of the pandemic’s effect on county resources.

With the hospital required to reserve many of its beds for coronavirus cases, elective surgeries, which are an important source of revenue for the county, are off the table.

Preckwinkle and others, including Evanston Commissioner Larry Suffredin, still lauded their decades of work and the “pretty impressive shape” the county now finds itself in.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin in 2017.Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times file
Commissioner Larry Suffredin in 2017.

The county’s health apparatus had slated over 130 employees for layoffs but officials said Tuesday the actual number of layoffs will likely be in the single digits due to retirements and attrition, though they couldn’t immediately offer a final number.

Preckwinkle unveiled her $6.9 billion budget last month, laying out her proposal to close a $409.2 million shortfall through a mix of layoffs, cutting vacant positions and tapping into reserves for the county’s 2021 fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

Ammar Rizki, the county’s chief financial officer, said at the time he and others on the county’s financial team are “projecting, basically a square root recovery” though the effect of the pandemic on the county’s budget is still in flux.