Spending up, but not taxes, in Preckwinkle budget
Leaning on savings from the Affordable Care Act, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unveiled her $3.9 billion proposed budget for 2015 that calls for $400 million in additional spending, but no new taxes or fees.
Preckwinkle's budget proposal closes a $169 million budget shortfall projected in June, mainly through cost reductions and federal reimbursements. Among the major cost reductions is the drop in operational costs at the Cook County Health and Hospital Systems covered by county taxpayers.
Preckwinkle anticipates spending $164 million in taxpayer revenue on the county's health care operations in 2015, down 58 percent from $389 million when she took office in 2010. Last year, county taxpayers covered more than $175 million in costs, according to county financial records.
"It's never going to get down to zero, but what's been a blessing is now there are more insured patients coming through our door than uninsured," she said Thursday during a budget presentation.
The key is keeping those insured patients and the federal subsidies that come with them. Preckwinkle said the county's hospital system used to be a provider of last resort and the challenge is making it a "provider of choice."
Recently hired county health systems CEO Dr. Jay Shannon said the CCHHS goal now is to prove to patients that the services they receive are better than what they can find elsewhere.
"We provide services that we think they value," he said. "They'll find out the thing they used to rely on in Cook County isn't there at their new health care system and they'll find that out pretty quickly."
The county is also receiving $220 million in grant funding, a 36 percent increase over the previous year, Preckwinkle said.
"That's all approved funding," she said.
Since taking office, Preckwinkle has frequently butted heads with Chief Judge Timothy Evans over budget recommendations and this year is no different. All other independent offices are on board with Preckwinkle's budget proposal, except the chief judge's office, budget officials said. The two sides remain $11 million apart with Evans seeking roughly $161 million for operational costs.
"We worked closely with his staff and we made an attempt to be fair," said Andrea Gibson, Preckwinkle's budget director.
Another area where Preckwinkle is looking to reduce costs is at the jail, one of the largest county correctional operations in the country.
"Every year, taxpayers pay over $381 million to operate our jail system and we know the best way to bring down the cost of the jail is to bring down the jail population," Preckwinkle said.
She said the jail population is down 11 percent over the last year and by eliminating incarcerations for petty crimes, "we can focus resources on those accused of violent crimes."
Additionally, she said as the jail population shrinks, so should the costs.
"As we see declines in the jail population, it is our responsibility to make sure there is the same downward trend in staffing levels and overtime rates."
As for suburban Cook County, a program Preckwinkle initiated a few years ago to clear small unincorporated areas off the map by helping to fund municipal takeover has stagnated.
The county pledged up to $5 million in matching funds for infrastructure work when suburban communities look to annex those pockets of unincorporated areas. None of that money has been touched so far. However, she said there is some movement.
"We hope to have some conclusion next year," she said.
The county board received Preckwinkle's budget proposal Thursday. They will debate the spending measures in the coming months and are expected to vote on a 2015 budget in November.