No new taxes, fees in Preckwinkle’s 2014 budget plan
BY TINA SFONDELES Staff Reporter October 10, 2013 1:30PM
Updated: November 12, 2013 6:24AM
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday announced her $3.2 billion 2014 budget, which includes no new taxes, fees or fines — and $40 million in capital fund investments to update the county’s outdated technology.
Her plan also calls for holding the line on property and other taxes as well as existing fees.
“The budget is not just a number. It’s a plan and we’re focusing on our health-care system, our criminal justice system, our economy and substantial investments in technology,” Preckwinkle told reporters after a 25-minute budget address before the county’s commissioners.
Her budget proposal, which must be approved by a majority of commissioners, contains no new taxes or hikes due in large part to cost savings from CountyCare, the Medicaid expansion program under the Affordable Care Act. As of this week, the county has initiated more than 110,000 applications for the program, which have been sent to the state for approval.
Admitting she doesn’t have a computer on her desk and that the county is “technology challenged,” Preckwinkle said her budget package earmarks money for technology upgrades to its financial system, property tax system and criminal data-sharing system.
By next year, the Leighton Criminal Courthouse will be connected to the county’s broadband Internet network — the same network that boosted the Cook County hospital system last year — delivering Internet connections that are 10 times faster. The county was able to cut a contract with an outside Internet vendor, which will save the county more than $500,000 over the next 10 years, Preckwinkle said.
Preckwinkle said improved connectivity at the courthouse and jail — where three inmates were mistakenly released this year due to paper work snafus — might lead to fewer mistakes.
“Sure, I think if we have a computer data system, there will be less, fewer human errors,” Preckwinkle said. “But this is a system in which human beings are involved, so there are always going to be some human errors.”
Cook County Chief Information Officer Lydia Murray said the goal in focusing on the county’s criminal court system is to get rid of the “carbon paper” — the method clerks use in the county’s courthouses.
In June the county reported a preliminary budget deficit of $152 million. The county expects to close that gap with: a projected increase of $16.5 million in tax revenues; Medicaid reimbursements to Cook County Health and Hospitals System of $86.5 million; and $10.5 million in other savings throughout the county health system, Preckwinkle says. The county also projects it will slash additional expenses by $38.6 million, including cuts to county employee health and pharmacy benefits.
Later Thursday, Preckwinkle took another shot in her ongoing feud with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, saying Evans did not show up to a Monday meeting to discuss his office’s budget with the president. Preckwinkle wanted to slash the number of vacancies from 175 to 154. He wants to keep the number at 175 — plus funding for 100 more jobs, she says.
“My point to everybody when they say they want more money is how well are you using the money you have? He came into this budget cycle with 175 vacancies, and so the idea that he needs 100 more ones, when he hasn’t filled 175 vacancies, is a hard case to make,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times editorial board on Thursday afternoon. “The message from the very beginning is figure out a way to manage with the resources that you have. So, not everyone got that message.”
A message left for Evans’ office was not returned early Thursday night.
The county will spend an additional $10 million because of “Raise Your Age” legislation, which shifts 17-year-olds charged with felonies from the adult court system to the juvenile system. Another $3.8 million is being spent on mandated federal hiring at the Cook County Jail and jail’s hospital, Cermak Hospital, because of the swelling population there.