Commissioners praise budget
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Northwest Side county commissioners said that they are pleased with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s $3.2 billion budget proposal for next year because it does not contain new taxes, fines or fees and is designed to be uncontroversial because commissioners are seeking re-election.
"This budget reflects my administration’s work over the past 3 years and is a testament to the reforms we have put in place to institutionalize fiscal responsibility in county government," Preckwinkle said in a statement. "We are not raising taxes and we are prioritizing spending. We have solved for more than $1.2 billion in deficits since I took office while improving services."
The county reported a budget deficit of $152 million in June. The shortfall was solved by an increase in anticipated Cook County Health and Hospitals System payments of $86.5 million and $10.5 million in savings, according to a press release. The county reduced additional expenses by $24.2 million, and revenues are estimated to increase by $16.5 million from early projections as a result of an improving economy and increased tax enforcement.
The county also will save $14.4 million in health and pharmacy costs by improving the management of employee benefits and more closely monitoring specialty drugs and conditions, according to the release.
"I’m glad that it doesn’t have any tax increases, and we are still meeting with some of the department heads about their planned spending," county Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-10) said.
Gainer said that the budget benefits from the county’s new Medicaid program, "County Care," which under the Affordable Care Act provides coverage for uninsured and underinsured patients in the county. She said that because the county was aggressive in providing early enrollment for the program, about 110,000 people have applied for "County Care."
The county anticipates $278 million in net revenue from the program in next year’s budget. The county has reduced the system subsidy by $76 million from the previous year thanks to "Obamacare," commissioners said. The health fund in the 2014 budget is increasing by $162 million.
"This budget is coming in an election year, and it was designed to be noncontroversial, but it does address overcrowding in our jails," Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13) said. "Everything is staying the same, but because of ‘Obamacare’ we got some money that we can play with and use it on public safety."
Gainer said that she would like to see what would happen with the non-titled use tax on personal property purchases made out of the county because a judge’s ruling recently blocked the tax.
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce joined a lawsuit filed by Reed Smith to invalidate the tax on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the state Constitution and state statute and because it violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution due to a higher tax rate charged on purchases outside the county than on purchases made within the county, according to the chamber.
Suffredin said that the non-titled tax issue will not win an appeal and that’s why those funds are not included in next year’s budget. "This tax was going to be used on non-titled items such as that big refrigerator or a big couch that would be purchased out of the county but used in the county," he said.
Also in the budget, public safety funding will increase by $27.6 million next year, according to commissioners. That reflects a change in state law that will shift 17-year-olds charged with felonies from the adult court system to the juvenile system.
The shift will cost the county about $10 million, commissioners said. The "Raise the Age" legislation requires additional staffing and resources at both the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and the Office of the Chief Judge’s Juvenile Probation.
"While the ‘Raise the Age’ legislation is the right policy, it comes at a price," Preckwinkle said. "It costs more to detain juveniles at the JTDC than it does to hold adults in our jail.
"The law was intended to prevent young men and women from being tried as adults and sent to the county jail — which is a good thing. We must continue to work together to find alternatives to detention for our young people."
Cook County Commissioner Edwin Reyes (D-8) said that he supports the budget. "It’s a great budget and I’m proud to be an ally with president Preckwinkle because she is a responsible public servant," Reyes said. "She’s dedicated to saving the taxpayers money and has been committed to keeping other departments accountable while keeping expenses down.
"She comes in every year and tries to reduce the deficit by 40 percent. She took office after a decade of shenanigans and fought to reduce it over the last 3 years."
Reyes said that he supports dealing with overcrowded jails and public safety. "It costs more to incarcerate these individuals with the hope that they will be rehabilitated," Reyes said. "Then they come out and they can’t get good jobs and they end up back in jail. Long-term care of incarcerated individuals is more expensive."
The public safety budget also is increasing by $3.8 million due to mandated federal hiring at the Cook County Jail. In The budget also provides resources to the jail to continue to treat inmates who are diagnosed as mentally ill.
"I think it addresses some important issues like overcrowding in our jails, and we will be able to make some improvements there," Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-9) said. Silvestri said that the intent is to get more people out of the jail system.
"It’s a strange age, 17, because some people are salvageable and they can be helped and on the other hand some people can’t be helped at all," Silvestri said.
Last year’s budget included a $1 increase in the county tax on a pack of cigarettes, a $25 tax on the purchase of guns and a tax on gambling machines while rolling back the remaining portion of the 2008 sales tax increase that was passed under former board president Todd Stroger.
The estimate for home rule taxes for next year is $764.3 million, a decrease of $24.3 million from last year. The decline is because of the final rollback of the 1 percent sales tax increase.
The cigarette tax is expected to bring in $134.5 million next year, compared to $145 million in 2013. The decrease is attributed to price sensitivity to higher tax rates, increased use of e-cigarettes and the continued downward trend in cigarette smoking.
"The big reduction was that we rolled back the sales tax increase and that eased some burden on taxpayers when it came to purchases in the county," Silvestri said. "Of course, we had to plug that with sin taxes."
The budget also contains several new initiatives to improve services for county residents. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office will add more than 20 employees, and the Bureau of Technology is spending $1.5 million on improving the county’s broadband networks.
"The positive aspect of it is that it controls spending and there are no new fees or fines or increases," Silvestri said. "Generally speaking it’s a very good budget. I usually vote against budgets when I can help it, but this one controls spending and I don’t have too many problems with it."
One new tax that was approved 2 years ago was the non-retailer use tax that will bring in $11.5 million compared to $14.3 million. The tax is a use tax for non-retail transfers of motor vehicle titles in the county.
The new rates are $225 for cars that are 1 to 3 years old, $175 for cars age 4 to 8 years, $90 for cars age 9 and older and motorcycles, and $25 for gifts or other non-monetary transfers. To pay the low rate, transfers must be made by relatives and proof of relationship must be established by documentation.
The previous rates were $225 for cars age 1 to 5 years, $200 for vehicles age 6 to 10 and $175 for cars age 11 and older.