The Cook County Board of Commissioners approved Tuesday a balanced $6.94 billion FY2021 budget developed through an equity lens and aimed at advancing work on criminal justice reform, public health, infrastructure and economic development without the need to increase existing taxes. The 17-0 vote approving the budget follows a month of departmental hearings, commissioner questions and public meetings.
“This is a balanced budget, without tax increases, that makes millions of dollars in important equity investments made possible because of our hard work, tough decisions and avoiding quick fixes,” said board President Toni Preckwinkle. “We’ve done a great deal of heavy lifting to instill fiscal responsibility and financial stability in Cook County.”
County leaders closed a $222.2 million gap in the general fund without the need for new taxes. A combination of financially responsible efforts, the use of rainy day savings, expenditure holdbacks, federal relief funding, higher than previously forecasted revenue, and vacancy reductions helped close a substantial general fund budget hole. With the closing of a $187 million budget gap at the hospital system, Cook County closed a $400 million deficit without the need for new taxes.
Higher than previously forecasted revenue figures primarily found in newer tax sources like cannabis, gaming and online sales, and $50 million in reimbursements through the federal CARES Act funding are the remaining elements that have helped balance this General Fund budget without the need for taxes.
Cook County Health also had to close a $187 million gap. Through expenditure reductions, a $40 million dollar additional tax allocation from the county, revenue from increased CountyCare membership, renegotiated reimbursement rates and modified direct payments from the State of Illinois, Cook County Health was able to close this gap while continuing to provide world-class services during the pandemic.
The county reduced expenditures by eliminating 569 vacant full-time equivalent positions. The county’s position count is now under 22,000 employees for the first time since Preckwinkle took office. This means departments are being asked to do more with less during these exceedingly difficult times. Additionally, the county is relying on a one-time transfer of $77 million from its General Fund reserves that under normal circumstances would not be touched.
Preckwinkle also highlighted the fact that Cook County has provided supplemental pension payments of almost $1.6 billion dollars above the required contribution since 2016, significantly reducing the unfunded pension liability with another supplemental pension payment of over $300 million this year included in the budget. Last week, Moody's and Fitch both re-affirmed the county's stable outlook and credit ratings at A2 and A+, respectively.
Preckwinkle highlighted a number of important items and investments in the budget that will be moving forward over the next two years:
- The Bureau of Economic Development will be investing an additional $20 million over the next two years in aid to business communities and residents in greatest need, with $5 million to expand support for small businesses, increase coaching and training for minority and women owned businesses, build an integrated small business ecosystem, and catalyze innovation in manufacturing. Two million dollars of the additional investment will go towards workforce training to meet the needs of high demand occupations and upskilling displaced workers. Thirteen million dollars is going to expand housing assistance and support for legal aid and foreclosure mediation while providing residents with food, utility and direct cash assistance.
- Cook County will invest an additional $20 million over the next two years for programs related to justice reform through the Justice Advisory Council (JAC). Five million dollars will go to anti-recidivism, violence prevention, restorative justice and youth development programming. Five million dollars will go to housing for those being released from the jail population and on electronic monitoring and $10 million to additional investments in access to justice programs and services.
- Nearly $6 million in capital investments for the continued development of an integrated property tax system that will make doing business with the County a lot easier for taxpayers.
- With approvals from the Cook County and Metra Boards, the county is targeting January for the fair transit pilot program launch to assist residents in the southern portion of the county with more frequent, affordable and accessible transportation options and ensure that residents on the South Side of Chicago and in the south suburbs have better access to transit.
“During the challenging and extraordinary times, I am proud of putting forward a budget addressing the fallout of the pandemic and increasing equitable investment in Cook County without increasing taxes,” Preckwinkle said.
All FY2021 budget information has been posted to the Cook County website, allowing the public to review documents and engage with the President’s Office directly. An interactive budget has been recently launched providing interactive historic data and detailed budget information.