This past October, voters experienced something truly incredible- the power of their collective voices.
After a rare tie-breaking vote by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle last year, Cook County joined a growing chorus of jurisdictions implementing taxes and fees to control individuals’ activities, consumption, hobbies, and perhaps most importantly, to raise funds. However, this October, the county became the largest jurisdiction to overturn a penny-an-ounce sweetened beverage tax.
Speaking of Preckwinkle’s tie-breaking vote, she maintained that Cook County needed the $200 million to prevent cuts to the Health and Hospitals System and public safety. Preckwinkle also built her Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget recommendation on the assumption that the tax would withstand the public’s outrage when all signs indicated that it wouldn’t. Preckwinkle delivered her budget recommendation and the county board delivered the repeal.
After the repeal, Preckwinkle and her staff stepped away from the budget conversation. They choose to skip department and public hearings until former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti announced that he would be challenging Preckwinkle in March. Immediately after Fioretti’s announcement leaked, Preckwinkle reinserted herself into discussions and offered cuts and reforms.
Following the repeal, county offices and agencies have been asked to cut an additional $200 million from their budgets. Treasurer Maria Pappas embraced the challenge and offered a 25 percent cut to her office without impacting service delivery. Sheriff Tom Dart offered to close jail divisions and underused courthouses, such as Bridgeview to save money. Bridgeview Courthouse is one of five suburban courthouses.
Other officials offered additional service charges, to lay-off employees, and to stop prosecuting certain criminal cases. Some gave monologues about why their offices should be exempt from any cuts. In response, Commissioners argued that now was the time to make meaningful cuts and to reform the county government. Cook County Farm Bureau® policy calls for reform, including job descriptions, auditing services, and functions of county departments and agencies. Farm Bureau policy supported the consolidation of the Recorder of Deeds into the Clerk, a move that has been approved by voters and is in process.
To meet the budget restrictions commissioners have asked the Health and Hospital System to make additional efforts to collect on $426 million in unpaid patient bills and pending insurance payments. The system’s current proposal includes collection on $90 million or 6 percent of the total, the rest will be written off as “bad debts.” Many of these “bad debts” are the result of poor billing and inaccurate coding.
When pension costs are factored in, the system’s budget is $2.4 billion or 44 percent of the county’s $5.4 billion budget. Of the hospital system’s budget, $1.2 billion will likely be reimbursed by Affordable Care Act payments and an additional $727 million will be reimbursed by the state. Taxpayers remain liable for $110 million for the day-to-day operations of the hospital system. This is a significant reduction from when Preckwinkle took office. In 2010, the county taxpayer subsidized portion of the hospital system’s budget was $389 million.
The hospital system is also considering closing the Oak Forest Health Center, negotiating with unions to allow job postings outside of the hospital system quicker, and working with community health clinics for tuberculosis care.
My point isn’t to rehash the county’s budget hearings but to remind voters of the power of their voice. This October you were able to repeal the sweetened beverage tax. Make sure your voice is heard again in the voting booth.
All county board members, Preckwinkle, Dart, and Assessor Joe Berrios are seeking an additional term and Recorder Karen Yarbrough is seeking the Clerk’s seat. Tell them what you think, but remember by not voting on March 20, 2018 you’re essentially saying, “I agree with how you’re using may taxpayer dollars, carry on.” Do you agree with how they’re using your money?
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