Preckwinkle talks layoffs as revenue shortage looms
Layoffs are likely as Cook County wrestles with a looming revenue shortage in 2012 to the tune of $315 million.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Thursday "it will be very hard to do this budget without layoffs" during a presentation of the coming year's preliminary budget estimates.
With 80 percent of the county's costs tied up in personnel, Preckwinkle said "everything is on the table" when it comes to closing the funding gap for the $3.4 billion budget. In the meantime, Preckwinkle ordered all county departments to immediately cut 5 percent across the board from non-personnel costs like office supplies. That action is expected to save about $5 million annually, county officials said.
Laurence Msall, president of the government accountability think tank Civic Federation, applauded Preckwinkle's first-of-its-kind preliminary budget. He echoed Preckwinkle's sentiments about personnel costs.
"Expect layoffs," he said.
Preckwinkle said rolling back a quarter-percent sales tax to fulfill a campaign pledge was responsible for $53 million of the expected shortfall, but it's not a decision she regrets.
"That was good for working families and good for business," she said, "but it does have financial implications."
The preliminary budget projection was even getting accolades from across the aisle as Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider of Bartlett commended the Democratic board president for her budget stances.
"She wants to balance the budget without raising taxes and that's what we need," Schneider said.
In addition to the expected revenue shortage next year, Preckwinkle's presentation also forecast revenue to come in $116 million below budget this year. She blamed "slower-than-anticipated" reimbursement and collections of patient fees throughout the county's independent hospital and health care system for $96 million of that shortage. County officials said those same delays in medical reimbursements and fees are responsible for more than a third of the anticipated shortfall next year.
Preckwinkle pointed out some cost-cutting measures her administration has implemented that kept the budget gap from widening further. She said the county has saved $25 million from a "sourcing" initiative and another $4.5 million from a new electricity contract. The county is also partnering with the city of Chicago to share each others' workloads.
"There's definitely savings to come from the joint cooperation between the city and county," Msall said.
But without some relief in personnel costs, the gap may not be easy to close. Preckwinkle noted that the county doesn't have a deal in place with union workers to extend furlough days into the next fiscal year. The furlough days are expected to save the county about $30 million this year, but Preckwinkle said the county has had "mixed results on furlough days." She suggested implementing what she called "shutdown days" and unpaid holidays to ensure as many employees as possible participate in the cost-cutting measure.
A hearing will be held Aug. 25 for the public to weigh in on the projected budget shortfalls, county officials said.