Expungements, tax appeals will cause hiring spree as overall Cook County jobs decline

Cook County will go on a hiring spree to help with court record expungements and property tax appeals, even as the total number of county jobs declines.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's nearly $6.2 billion 2020 budget proposal calls for an addition of 265 new positions throughout countywide offices, most related to courthouse and court clerk operations, county officials explained Thursday. There are no new taxes planned or tax hikes.

Tanya Anthony, the county's budget director, said many of the new hires will deal with almost 700,000 low-level cannabis-related expungements.

"Per state law, there are a number of expungements that have to happen within a year," she said, "but we see the whole process as a three-year process."

She added that Assessor Fritz Kaegi's office is getting 17 new positions and the county's Board of Review is slated to receive another 16 positions. Preckwinkle said the staffing increases were necessary because of a 15% hike in the number of property tax appeals the county has dealt with in the last year.

The Board of Review received additional staff last year, which resulted in an intra-board squabble over how the new positions were divvied up among the three elected board members. The lone Republican board member, Dan Patlak, complained that Democrats Larry Rogers Jr. and Michael Cabonargi were hoarding the new positions for themselves, leaving his office understaffed to handle the appeal work.

Ammar Rizki, the county's chief financial officer, said he was told the new positions would be equally divided among the commissioners.

The total county workforce will shrink by almost 400 positions because of the county's plan to eliminate more than 600 vacant health care positions. Meanwhile, the county is having to deal with more uninsured patients because of what Preckwinkle called "federal sabotage" of the Affordable Care Act by the Trump administration.

"The Trump administration has done everything it can to undermine the Affordable Care Act," Preckwinkle said. "They've reduced support and done everything they could to torpedo it."

Preckwinkle's proposal still has an $18.7 million operating deficit, though that is a far cry from the budget deficits she dealt with in the past that were often well above $200 million.

Still, Treasurer Maria Pappas said more countywide officials should follow her office's lead of reducing costs and personnel while increasing revenue. She said her office isn't getting any new personnel, though her estimated $21 million revenue surplus this year alone is likely covering the cost of the proposed new staffers in other county offices.

"I'm very grateful to the treasurer for her good work," Preckwinkle said.

Pappas said her office should be held up as an example instead of used as a financial crutch for other departments.

"I don't need a thank you," the treasurer said. "This is about getting the other offices to mimic what I'm doing."

The full county board will vote on the budget in the coming weeks. The new fiscal year starts Dec. 1.

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