Fresh off her reelection to four more years leading the Cook County Board, President Toni Preckwinkle received unanimous support Thursday for her $8.8 billion budget for 2023, which is free of taxes and full of plans to spend the county’s federal COVID relief dollars on a slew of social programs.
This summer, the county forecast the smallest deficit of Preckwinkle’s 12-year tenure: $18.2 million. Thanks to higher-than-anticipated revenue figures — including $124 million more than it was expecting from sales taxes — Preckwinkle did not need to propose gap-filling measures.
After amendments, the $8.8 billion figure is a roughly 8% increase over her 2022 budget and nearly three times the size of Preckwinkle’s budget a decade ago. That growth has been driven by the county expanding its flagship health system — at a 2023 cost of more than $4 billion — and steadily rising pension payments, which will total more than $500 million in 2023.
The budget on Thursday cleared the Finance Committee 17-0, then later the full County Board unanimously approved the fiscal plan by the same margin. It was the last budget vote for Commissioners Peter Silvestri, Deborah Sims, Larry Suffredin, who are all retiring, and Luis Arroyo Jr., who lost his Democratic primary in June.
“In the face of multiple economic risks, Cook County has had its bond ratings upgraded and has put the county’s pension fund on a path toward sustainability,” Preckwinkle said when introducing her budget last month. “We’ve built up a reserve fund for difficult days ahead and developed hundreds of millions of dollars in equity programs and pandemic relief.”
On Thursday, Preckwinkle told commissioners that with the help of federal funding, the 2023 budget helps “maintain critical services and advance transformative initiatives,” helping county residents recover from the pandemic, “while making historic investments in equity-focused initiatives and programs.”
The budget won the support of the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group. On Thursday, Federation President Laurence Msall applauded the county’s build up of “significant reserves” and said funds that exceed how much it keeps in reserves are being allocated prudently. Msall also commended the county for eight straight years of paying off pension costs by even more than it needed as well as not hiking taxes during a time of inflation.
The county’s workforce is slated to grow by just over 1% compared to last year under the plan. But whether the county will be able to fill those positions remains unclear: Of the more than 23,500 positions budgeted, 4,000 were vacant when Preckwinkle introduced her budget.
The county has budgeted for more than 130 positions to help manage spending of its federal COVID relief funds. Through the end of October, the county had only spent 9% of the $1 billion it was given through the American Rescue Plan Act’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, according to county finance officials.
Among county programs funded by ARPA for 2023 and beyond: $42 million for a pilot project to provide guaranteed income for some qualifying residents, $74 million to expand behavioral services at Cook County Health, $75 million for violence prevention programs, $12 million to eliminate medical debt for qualified county residents, $14 million to expand homeless services for patients of Cook County Health, $10 million to remediate brownfields in suburban neighborhoods to spur development and a $20 million program with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago for stormwater management.
The board also OK’d a few last-minute tweaks to the budget but not without some debate.
The county is setting aside $11.4 million to lease a helicopter and “associated equipment” for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office. The amendment, proposed by Commissioner Frank Aguilar, will use money from a debt service fund maintained by the county’s chief financial officer that was rolled over from the previous budget.
Commissioners who voted yes said the equipment would help the county track carjackers, kidnappers and other criminals by air, and to match other large counties that have more and superior air equipment. While the amendment passed, Commissioners Alma Anaya and Brandon Johnson, who is running for Chicago mayor, expressed opposition for the helicopter spending. Anaya and Johnson have repeatedly expressed opposition to increased spending on law enforcement.
Commissioner Bridget Degnen also proposed spending $275,000 to embed two social workers in Cook County’s 911 dispatch center “to answer calls related to mental health and crisis stabilization.” But while applauding Degnen’s commitment to non-police emergency response, some commissioners and members of the public disagreed with the funding, which passed through the sheriff’s office budget.
Johnson voted against the $275,000 and said he was having a “tough time” supporting a measure that utilized a system his constituents “didn’t really trust … when 911 shows up, it isn’t really comfortable.” Commissioner Bill Lowry also voted no, saying the effort fell short in addressing the scope of the county’s need for mental health support.
While the funds will be passed through the sheriff’s office to the Emergency Telephone System Board, the social workers will not be directed by the sheriff, Degnen said.
She pledged to work to get alternative funding, saying “there is a possibility” the state could provide that funding stream to transition the program away from the sheriff.
“The ETSB is a creature of state statute … (but) without these two people,” the sheriff’s office will respond to crisis calls in person, rather than mental health professionals handling incidents over the phone.
Degnen also proposed adding two employees to audit ARPA-funded program spending “to ensure the county is using the funds appropriately,” which passed unanimously. Finance Chair John Daley’s proposal to add a general counsel and ethics officer position at the Board of Review also passed.