Members of the came to a forum Sunday at the Winnetka Community House to heargive a state of the county address.
What more than 60 people in the audience heard was not only the condition of county government in Preckwinkle’s first five months in office but a lecture about social justice.
Preckwinkle indicated the primary focus of the county’s budget is operation of Stroger Hospital—formerly Cook County Hospital—and other health care facilities along with the Cook County Jail.
With her first order of business reforming the office of the board president after her election in November, she told the group she has improved fiscal responsibility, instituted innovative leadership, increased transparency and heightened accountability.
“We told every department they had to cut their budget,” Preckwinkle said. “They all did it and we kept our promise to repeal the one half percent sales tax increase (enacted under the administration of her predecessor, Todd Stroger).”
With the county currently operating three hospitals—Stroger, Oak Forest and Provident—Preckwinkle explained how Oak Forest would be closed and Pvodident’s mission changed to much more outpatient and specialized care. The beds are Oak Forest and Provident are rarely in full use.
After telling the group about her four pronged approach to reforming the office of the board president, she launched into a discussion of the underlying social issues behind many of the county’s problems.
The Cook County Board president let them know she believes there is a strong relationship between failures in Chicago’s public education system and the jail population.
“The education system has failed the young people,” Preckwinkle said. “Only 55 percent of students graduate from the Chicago Public Schools. Among African and Latino you have 40 percent.”
Where do most of those drop outs wind up? According to Preckwinkle they are among the 8,500 inmates of a jail inordinately populated by African American and Latino men. “Virtually everyone in the jail is African American or Latino,” she said. It also costs taxpayers between $45,000 and $50,000 a year to house a prisoner.
Preckwinkle went on to tell the group the best solution to reducing the jail population and with it the $142 per day expense to incarcerate an inmate is improving education and with it economic opportunity.
“A high school diploma is not just entry to a trade school or community college, it is a ticket to the work force,” Preckwinkle said. “If an employer has a choice they will hire the person with the diploma.”
What Preckwinkle wants to see is an end the avenue from dropping out of high school to the Cook County Jail.
“If the young people can’t find work they end up on the streets,” Preckwinkle said. “If they are on the streets they will have contact with the police,” she added describing what she feels is a vicious cycle.
Things are different in New Trier Township with some of the finest schools in the United States. Most graduates go to four year colleges. Preckwinkle sees North Shore involvement differently.
“This is a social justice issue. A lot of people here (in New Trier Township) understand that,” Preckwinkle said when pressed after the meeting. She indicated many people in the area understand the evils of discrimination.
When Kathy Somogyi of Wheeling asked if the unused beds at Oak Forest and Provident hospitals could be used to treat prisoners with mental health issues, Preckwinkle explained way too many of the people in the jail system needed such care.
“One quarter to one third of the people in the jail have mental health challenges,” Preckwinkle said. “In treating the mentally ill we have just changed the institution,” she added explaining public mental health facilities have been closed. The former patients have become inmates.
After making that statement, Preckwinkle returned to her social justice theme. “Having a place to live and a job go a long way to curing depression,” she said.
When New Trier Democrat board member Sandy Stein asked Preckwinkle about increased gambling revenue for the city, she bristled at the suggestion.
“It’s a reprehensible way to get revenue,” Preckwinkle said of gambling. “If you look where most of the lottery tickets are sold you’ll find it’s in the poorest zip codes. I wish more people had the courage to raise taxes for everybody not just the gamblers. We’re there yet.”