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posted: 10/17/2013 5:00 AM

The alluring, but unfinished, saga of Cook County budget

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  • Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President

    Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The story of the 2014 Cook County budget, unveiled last week by county board President Toni Preckwinkle, sounds very alluring today but may not be entirely evident until the budget for 2015 is written.

At the outset, there is much to like in the arithmetic here -- a continued closing of the spending gap, no new taxes or fees, a shift in the management of juvenile crime suspects, an increasingly self-sufficient health care system. These are praiseworthy achievements for a governing body that operated for more than a decade with reckless disregard of sound fiscal standards.

But there are cautions, too.

For one, spending increases by some $250 million over the FY 2013 budget, a warning sign tempered by the fact that the 2013 plan was more than a half-billion dollars -- 17 percent -- lower than the budget Preckwinkle was handed when she walked into the office in 2010 but a warning sign nonetheless. And, bright spot though it is -- having closed a deficit that was $487 million in 2010 -- the spending gap is still far from comforting at $152 million.

Politics also bear watching when contemplating the 2013 plan. Next year is an election year, so the lack of a tax or fee increase provides some protective cover for incumbents seeking re-election to various county posts. It will be instructive to see whether that commitment can be maintained after the votes have been counted.

Much of the additional revenue Preckwinkle relies on to keep closing the spending gap comes because of the foresight she and Cook County Health Systems CEO Dr. Ram Raju showed in getting early transfers of Medicaid patients to coverage under the national health care act. And much of the additional cost pressuring this budget comes from the transition to new rules keeping some juvenile suspects out of the adult jail population. In the beginning, these initiatives represent divergent pressures on the budget. The health care plan is providing funding help while handling suspects as juveniles rather than adults will be more expensive. But they both also offer good and bad long-term consequences, including the potential of adding expenses as more patients come into the health care system and for savings if the new approach to juvenile incarceration reduces the chances suspects will reoffend as adults.

And on top of all this, ominously, the still unresolved question of pension reform looms over the county's financial outlook, requiring local attention though also dependent on actions still unresolved in Springfield.

Considering she came into office facing a budget of more than $3.5 billion propped up by a detested sales tax increase, which she successfully eliminated over time, Preckwinkle's assertion of control over county finances is laudable, a refreshing commitment to stability, discipline and responsibility that would be welcome at any level of government these days. But, there is still far to go. After the election and after all these other factors have fallen into place, the fuller story of Cook County's budgeting future will be written in the approach to spending that 2015 brings.

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