Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed a balanced 2011 budget Tuesday with more than a half-billion dollars in cuts from the previous year.
Faced with an estimated $487 million budget shortfall, Preckwinkle proposed a $3 billion budget in a special meeting of the County Board, down from $3.56 billion last year. She said it was intended to "restore fiscal responsibility within Cook County government."
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The budget calls for an estimated 1,075 layoffs, or about 4 percent of the county's work force of about 23,700, and that's before late cuts in the State's Attorney's Office, the Sheriff's Police and the clerk of the court are factored in.
Sheriff Tom Dart said he'd be laying off an estimated 100 employees as part of a budget compromise with the president, and Preckwinkle said the cuts could eventually total 8 percent of the county's work force, or more than 2,000.
"Our view is that you can make the cuts that we're making and continue to have good services," Preckwinkle said. "We're trying to make county government more effective and efficient, and we think we can do that even with a reduced work force."
Preckwinkle, however, said it was unfair to say that the county was simply eliminating a "pork roll" of unnecessary employees.
"While some people being laid off are totally slackers or shirkers," she acknowledged, "the overwhelming majority seem good and decent people who just got up every day and went to work and tried to do a good job. And it's very painful to me that one of my first tasks in this office is to put so many people on the street."
Yet she maintained the cuts were necessary to address the county's new fiscal reality and that they would not diminish vital county services.
"This proposed budget represents the first steps of a restructuring of county finances and a long-term plan that will address the structural budget deficit and lay the groundwork for the (full) rollback of the county sales-tax increase," Preckwinkle said. "It is through a commitment to this collaborative process that we have been able to make historic changes to this budget, all in the interest of building a sustainable financial future for the county government."
Through long-term fixes, Preckwinkle said she intends to keep her promise to roll back the full 1-percentage-point sales-tax increase imposed by her predecessor, Todd Stroger, which was halved last year. Preckwinkle held to a schedule to trim it by a quarter percentage point in the 2012 budget and return the county sales tax to its previous 0.75 percent at the start of 2013.
Suburban Republican commissioners greeted the budget warmly.
"I think what the president presented to us is pretty much what I've been looking forward to seeing for the four years I've been on the board," said Bartlett Commissioner Timothy Schneider.
He said it called for "a return to fiscal responsibility, a return to efficient county government, cutting the waste, cutting the corruption, and I think we're on the way to doing that."
"I'm impressed with the whole approach they're taking to this budget," said Glenview Commissioner Gregg Goslin. He said it would "rein in spending" and begin to deal with long-term structural drains on the budget, such as health insurance and workers' compensation.
The budget address was well-received by the County Board, and the budget was highly praised by Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based, business-oriented government watchdog.
"This is a very positive day for Cook County government," Msall said. "We believe she has put into action what she promised.
"It's going to be painful. Without a doubt there are very significant reductions in this budget," he added. "But it's essential to stabilize this government's finances."
Departments took an average of 15 percent cuts, with most meeting Preckwinkle's call for a 16 percent cut across the board. State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and the Public Defender's Office were granted lighter 10 percent cuts, and in an 11th-hour compromise Sheriff Dart agreed to a 12 percent cut. Preckwinkle lauded the Health & Hospitals System for making up much of the difference with a 21 percent cut, or about $82 million, purely through implementation of its strategic plan.
The budget also plans to increase revenues by cracking down on tax scofflaws, especially with the cigarette tax, and will restructure some county debt, for instance tapping into a line of credit to pay off a $45 million settlement for a class-action lawsuit at the Cook County Jail.
The county board was rapt during Preckwinkle's address. "It was as quiet as I've ever heard it," Msall said. "It's a reality check for this government."
Passage seemed certain as the process heads into departmental hearings before the Finance Committee, but Preckwinkle was taking nothing for granted, saying, "We're going to work hard over the next month to secure the support of nine commissioners and pass this budget."
The budget has to be balanced and approved by the end of the month, or the first quarter of the fiscal year, which began Dec. 1.
"We've never seen this level of detailed preparations and innovations in a budget proposal from a County Board president before," Msall said. "Without a doubt, this is a new day."