| by Kelly Tarrant and Abigail Hart

The Cook County Board of Commissioners will vote on the proposed County budget by November 30. Board President Toni Preckwinkle has proposed a $5.36 billion budget recommendation for 2018. The County’s 2017 budget was $4.4 billion.

In light of the controversial penny-an-ounce soda tax having been repealed in September, President Toni Preckwinkle has asked each department to cut 10 percent from their 2018 budgets in order to close a $200 million budget hole. The sweetened-beverage tax will come to an end November 30. Several department heads testified on how their budgets may or may not be able to fill that gap.

Cook County Treasurer

Treasurer Maria Pappas offered to exceed the 10 percent request and reduce her $1.3 million budget by 25 percent. Pappas said she can do so without laying off full-time staff. At the soda tax repeal hearing held in September, Pappas stated, “I am against the soda tax; any questions” and said she was prepared to fight the good fight.

Clerk of the Circuit Court

Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown requested $105.6 million for the Circuit Court’s 2018 budget, an increase of $4.1 million from 2017. She provided no specific departmental cuts to reach the requested 10 percent reduction.

Brown did, however, suggest the County pursue the $13.1 million that Chicago owes in outstanding debt for administrative hearings, to which Commissioner Jeff Tobolski replied, “I don’t see the City paying us that $13 million; this will be going on for 20 years.”

Tobolski recommended Clerk Brown remove the department’s Inspector General’s Office, which would cut more than $800,000 in salaries alone and is a resource already provided by the county’s Independent Inspector General, Patrick Blanchard.

Public Defender

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli defended her department’s 2018 budget, having already cut $5 million before the requested 10 percent. Campanelli explained to commissioners that any further cuts would greatly impair the department’s ability to represent defendants.

Commissioners echoed Campanelli’s concerns that more reductions to her budget would put underrepresented minorities at an even greater risk of wrongful convictions.

“[Commissioner Larry] Suffredin and I are going to try to work together to make sure the least amount is cut,” said Commissioner Deborah Sims. “You represent the people who look like me. And I don’t want anyone who looks like me or [Commissioner Luis] Arroyo or anyone else to go to jail unnecessarily.”

Cook County Sheriff

Sheriff Tom Dart was asked to cut $62 million from his budget to help Cook County fill the $200 million budget hole, but instead he offered cuts of only $33 million at a budget hearing. Dart proposed to save $9 million by consolidating his office with the Forest Preserve District Police, without having any formal talks with General Superintendent of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County Arnold Randall.

Dart made note that he had to add more than 600 positions due to a pact with the U.S. Department of Justice this year, and that he did so without an increase of funds. Additionally, he eliminated homeland security, custodians, and graffiti units just to name a few. Dart said to cut any further than he already has would be a detriment to the pact set with the Department of Justice, perhaps causing their oversight to return.

Commissioner Sean Morrison (17th District) repeatedly inquired on the large number of “Directors” in Dart’s budget, with more than 465 administrative staff in the civilian division alone.

Cook County Health and Hospital System

Health system board members presented a plan to cut $12.4 million out of the public health system in fiscal year 2018, falling short of the system’s $27 million goal. In July they reported that the health system was facing a $40 million budget deficit.

During the November 15 Cook County Board meeting, commissioners focused in on the collections line-item for the system. According to Ekerete Akpan, county health’s CFO, there are $426 million in uncollected medical claims, of which it is estimated at least $90 million can be recovered. Commissioners Richard Boykin (1st District) and Sean Morrison (17th District) both requested more information on the success rate of the two collection agencies that have master vendor agreements (Penn Credit and Nationwide). According to the health system’s deputy chief executive officer of finance and strategy, Doug Elwell, collection agency Harris & Harris’ contract was terminated in 2015. Additionally, Commissioner Peter Silvestri (9th District) requested a listing of the number of debts created by “physicians’ error” in the billing process.

Cook County Assessor

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios claimed to have met the overall 10 percent cut requested by President Preckwinkle. However, after further review, the total cut came to less than $1 million. This was due to “turnover adjustment,” where Berrios inadvertently counted the elimination of vacant positions that had already been calculated out of the budget by the Budget Office due to their lengthy vacancy.

During his hearing, Berrios said he expects his office to do more than 500,000 appeals in 2018. Having to find additional cuts could cause tax bills to go out late, which he said hasn’t happened in his tenure.

Berrios did not know when the outside review of his assessment process would be complete. President Preckwinkle ordered an independent review be done by the Civic Consulting Alliance, after allegations of unfair assessments surfaced this summer.

Cook County Inspector General

Cook County Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard met the 10 percent budget cut request, in part by mandating his staff of 15 to take 16 furlough days next year. Blanchard said he received 390 complaints this year. The Cook County IG Office has just 11 investigators, in comparison to other oversight agencies, such as the City of Chicago IG, which employs 97 investigators alone. Blanchard also has eliminated one position from his budget.

Commissioner Suffredin (13th District) suggested that one way to generate more funds for the IG Office would be to increase recovery efforts of waste and fraud. This suggestion comes after Blanchard successfully uncovered the misuse of $248,000 by a Cook County doctor. The OIIG has oversight over nearly all agencies in Cook County government, with the exception of the Clerk of the Circuit Court. The Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown has her own IG Office, with 10 investigators and $800,000 in allocated salaries. Blanchard was open to the idea of consolidating offices to increase his oversight but said he would need more resources.

Because many department heads were not able to make the necessary cost adjustments for their departments, President Preckwinkle made her own recommendations, which include laying off mid-level managers, holding the line on raises and requiring workers to take unpaid days off in both the Sheriff and Chief Judge Offices.

Preckwinkle’s plan includes:

Preckwinkle also proposed to consolidate duplicated services county-wide, and eliminate the Inspector General at the Circuit Clerk’s Office, which is viewed as a duplicate effort to the existing Independent Inspector General Office of Cook County. Additionally, savings are expected from the proposed closing of Cook County Branch Courts 29 and 42 located at 2452 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago.

Also introduced at the Cook County Board meeting is Item 17-6195 sponsored by Commissioner Suffredin. This proposed ordinance amends the public testimony section in further defining a person who is deemed “disruptive.” The ordinance’s description of a disruptive commenter includes someone “who is speaking in a volume louder than a low, conversational level appropriate for communication between persons seated next to each other in the chamber.” A possible result of being disruptive on two occasions within a 15-day time period includes being banned from future board meetings for up to 28 days.

The full 2018 budget must be voted on by the end of the county’s fiscal year, November 30. The next meeting will be held November 21 at 10 a.m.