TONI PRECKWINKLE incumbent, Democratic candidate for Cook County President                                                                 

What do you consider to be the major issue(s) facing Cook County?  As Cook County Board President, my two main responsibilities are the provisions of public health and public safety.

Public health:  The Cook County Health and Hospital System is the safety net for thousands of individuals throughout the region - not just for our residents; but for individuals in counties and states throughout the country.  Last year alone, we provided over $500 million in charity care.

The challenge is to balance our commitment to taxpayers of Cook County to evaluate and streamline the costs of health care with our promise to the staff and, most important our patients, to firmly protect the quality and sustainability of our health care services.

Without a doubt, our greatest achievement has been securing the 1115 Waiver, a waiver from the federal government that allowed us to early enroll patients who are eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). To date, over 76,000 individuals are now receiving primary and preventative health care, many for the first time, under our CountyCare program. And all of this has a huge impact on the financial health of our system.  Medicaid expansion will help pay for $278 million of the uncompensated care we provide. This revenue, in turn, is helping the health system become more financially sustainable.

Public Safety:  Cook County is home of the largest single site jail system in the country.  The Cook County criminal justice system is composed of a number of different stakeholders – each who whom comes to the discussion unique roles and perspectives. And in fact, a lot of these individuals are naturally adversarial with each other – it fact, it’s a fundamental part of their roles. For example, the Public Defender is supposed to oppose the State’s Attorney and vice versa.

But in order to conduct our criminal justice system effectively, we have to bring together these key stakeholders. To that end, we have reorganized and strengthened the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, the Criminal Justice reform arm of my office.  Under the leadership of Executive Director Juliana Stratton, the JAC is tasked with facilitating discussions and collaboration within the criminal justice system to pursue and implement County-wide reform. One of my first actions as Cook County Board President, was to create a County-wide performance management initiative called STAR – Set Targets. Achieve Results. For the first time, public safety stakeholders had a foundation to come together to discuss and debate. We all came together and decided that our priority was to reduce the jail population. Additionally, this year, we are investing $1.5 million on a data-sharing tool that will allow all our public safety stakeholders to access and share information.

The Cook County Jail has a daily census of roughly 10,000 individuals. Roughly 90% of those in Cook County Jail are there because they are awaiting trial; usually because they can’t pay their bond.  The overwhelming majority are there for non-violent offenses. My priority is to reduce the over-reliance on pre-trial detention and to address these problems directly. (See below for more details).

Forest Preserves:  The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is currently celebrating its centennial anniversary. To mark our 100th year, we cannot simply celebrate our history, we have to chart a new vision for the Preserves’ next century. That is why, at the beginning of 2013, I appointed a group of 15 civic leaders from a variety of professional disciplines to not only chart our goals but establishing the implementation strategies to accomplish them. The commission was co-chaired by John McCarter, President Emeritus of the Field Museum, Wendy Paulson of Openlands, Arthur Velasquez, Chairman of Azteca Foods and Dr. Eric Whitaker, CEO of TWG Partners. The Next Century Conservation Plan focuses on four key areas: land, people, economy and leadership. The Next Century Conservation Plan will be introduced to the Forest Preserve Board of Commissioners in February (2/18/14) for adoption as the official master plan for the Preserves future.

The Plan calls particular attention to the issue that only 5% of our land is in good ecological health.  As part of this process, we have committed to restoring 30,000 acres over 25 years.

In addition to increasing our capacity for conservation, we need to increase our overall acreage. The Forest Preserves currently accounts for 11 % of the County’s land - nearly 69,000 acres. However, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Chicago Wilderness have identified 21,000 additional acres that are currently unprotected and provide critical habitat, or buffers or connections for trails.  Protecting new lands will have significant future benefits such as increased property values, reduced flooding and more recreation opportunities - in addition to better connecting the Forest Preserves to people where they live. I am prepared to go to the General Assembly to ensure the necessary tools to acquire additional acreage. 

But we can’t do that alone. We must continue to expand our volunteer corps. By building off of the energy, talent and commitment of current the volunteer corps and dedicated restoration staff, we can engage thousands of new people.  During the Great Depression, the Federal Government created the Civilian Conservation Corps. In Cook County thousands of people were hired to build picnic shelters, trails, and aqueducts in the Forest Preserves- 9,000 workers a day were employed to build the Skokie Lagoons.  Already, we are working with high school students, GreenCorps, the Student Conservation Association, Audubon and a few other organizations to implement restoration intern and job training programs for almost 200 people.  We also want to build a permanent Conservation Corps to provide workforce training for restoration.  The time is ripe to expand on these efforts. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel is working to raise $20 million in private funds to enable these types of programs on public lands throughout the nation.

We must ensure that ALL our residents recognize what a treasure we have in the Forest Preserves. We are focus that the Preserves are accessible to all residents and that once there, residents feel welcome, safe and invited to explore.

Economic Development:  Cook County has not historically been known for its economic development efforts – and for good reason. While we have various tools and incentives at our disposal, for too long we have lacked a strategic plan for economic growth and development. This is why one of my first steps as President was to create a centralized Bureau of Economic Development to expand the capacity and capability of our economic development efforts within Cook County. We have also sought additional counsel through our Council of Economic Advisors, to help us engage in regional economic development issues. (See more detail below)

What will your number one priority be, if you are elected?  As Cook County Board President, one of my top priorities is to continue our efforts to reduce the reliance on pre-trial detention in the jail.

We took a serious look at the profile of those we were detaining and projected that could be eligible and better served in other services. The jail is currently being used largely to detain those awaiting for trial. In fact, roughly 90% of those in Cook County Jail are there because they are awaiting trial; usually because they can’t pay their bond.

It costs $143 a day to detain someone in Cook County Jail. We have a daily jail population just under 10,000. Of that, nearly 70% of those in the jail are held on non-violent offenses – many for drug possession charges.

Pre-trial detention may be appropriate for dangerous defendants charged with violent crimes. But the majority of those in our jail are charged with non-violent offenses. Nearly anything else we do for them – drug programs, electronic monitoring, the day reporting center, etc. – is not only cheaper, it is better for the individual.

In Cook County, we are building a foundation for better decision making to ensure that court involved residents continue to receive any services they are entitled to and can continue working and assisting their families. So we are increasing alternatives to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring, for these offenders. At the same time, we are investing in community-based alternatives to reduce the number of our youth detained in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. We are focusing on expanding and strengthening pre-trial services. As we reduce the detained population, communities will stabilize and schools will benefit. 

What avenues do you see for increasing business growth and economic development in the County?  My first campaign promise was to eliminate the 1% sales tax increase. Having the highest sales taxes in the country was detrimental to our working families and our businesses. But just because I knew it was the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it was easy. It meant losing a valuable source of revenue in tough economic times. But we kept our promise and, as a result, we have saved County residents $1.1 billion.

One of my first steps was to create a Bureau of Economic Development to improve the capacity and capability of our economic developments.  Cook County’s role in economic development cannot be seen as solely the work of the Bureau of Economic Development. Cook County contains 128 municipalities and townships and over 300 special-purpose governments within its borders. Effective economic development efforts must be collaborative.

For example, we know that one of the biggest challenges facing our communities is around housing. The foreclosure and property crises have created deep and complicated problems in our communities that can only be addressed through the well-coordinated efforts of a wide range of actors.  To that end, we created a Land Bank Authority, to assist in identifying key areas where reinvestment is needed. But this type of reinvestment challenges the abilities of even the most sophisticate and well-funded municipalities; financially strapped communities find them insurmountable. That is why we have worked with the South Suburban Land Bank to submit a joint application to the Attorney General for National Foreclosure funds. As a result, we secured $6 million, the largest such grant in the state, to aid our efforts.

However, to truly impact economic development – we have to be able to meaningful engage at a regional level. That’s why we created a Council of Economic Advisors, a group of more than 20 distinguished business and civic leaders from across the region, to help us better advocate, organize, and partner across the region to promote economic growth. The Council produced a report – Partnering for Prosperity – that outlines our three key areas of responsibility – governance, production and support – and, in doing so, provides us with a framework for improving our economic development efforts across the region. 

We know that all this depends on supporting our workforce. We know that the only way to have job security in the future, to get a good job with a growing income, is to have skills and the ability to learn new ones.  Therefore, we partnered with the City of Chicago and streamlined the patchwork of training programs into the City-County Workforce Partnership.  We want to make sure that when a new business moves into the area, they need a workforce that is ready to meet their needs. We need to communicate to businesses that, when they move into the area, they can and should hire locally. This new approach to workforce development will allow companies to find and train employees to fit the jobs of the 21st century. Neither geographic boundaries nor systemic inefficiencies will be obstacles. Our overarching goal is to tie job training to real-time employment opportunities and economic development.

If elected, what will you do to support local farmers, including urban farmers and community gardeners in your district?  Historically, row crops and hay farming have taken place on land owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Early 2013, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County opened over 1,000 acres and 12 sites for hay mowing and over 680-acres and four sites for row crop production. This is a substantial increase from 2008 when the District opened five sites for hay mowing and one site for row crop production.

It is the District’s intention to restore fallow land wherever possible and these farming practices are a good method to do so.

The District is a also key partner (along with the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District) in NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust that preserves and sustains gardens on behalf of dedicated community groups. The District contributes $100,000 a year, has two staff members on their board and contribute additional resources, such as mulch, in support of the program.

What avenues do you see to reduce government spending and waste?  Since taking office, we have cut $430 million in expenditures.

But it’s not enough to cut government- we have to rethink the way it works. During the first budget process, we discovered County departments and agencies were not able to measure what services were being provided for each taxpayer dollar. That is why we implemented the first County-wide performance management initiative (STAR – Set Targets. Achieve Results). We’re holding all agencies, including ourselves, accountable by requiring the preparation of a quarterly report to establish measurable goals and detail their plans to meet these goals.

Performance management allows us not only to assess and evaluate our own operations, but to become better partners. For decades the city and county shared a building but rarely shared ideas or resources. Through our City-County Collaboration, we have saved over $70 million in savings and additional revenue.

For example, both governments collect cigarette taxes. Now, both city and county inspectors are issuing citations on each other’s behalf when they are in the field, resulting in more than $13.9 million in increased revenue collections.  This partnership has become a part of our day-to-day operations, including sharing equipment, buying goods and applying for grants.

As a result, the FY2014 budget without ANY new taxes, new fees or new fines.

In order to accomplish this, we’ve thought about how to bring new revenues and resources to the County. We have increased revenue by investing in our enforcement and audit efforts. For example, within the Department of Revenue, we have added 19 additional inspectors and auditors since taking office. As a result, we have nearly tripled the number of cigarette tax inspections and nearly doubled the number of confiscations. Next year, we look to bring in $134 million in cigarette tax revenues alone.

We have also worked to secure more federal resources.  This year, grant funding went up 21%, including grant funding for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and funding for the Land Bank Authority created earlier this year.

And we have continued to work to close loopholes and unfair exemptions. Most notably, this year, I have proposed that we end the practice that allows employees and officials who receive less than full-time County pay to pick up the full share of their health benefits from the County.

Please, briefly describe your background and qualifications for the office you are seeking.  I’m proud of the work we have accomplished in the last three years. We have passed four budgets and reformed how we engage each other and the public in this process. We have demanded more accountability from our operations and our employees. We developed a robust policy agenda- focusing on critical public safety reform, working to strengthen our health care system and increasing the capacity and capability of our economic development efforts.

I remain fully committed to the residents and the responsibilities of Cook County.