A preliminary projected Cook County budget shortfall of more than $315 million sent and the commissioners scrambling to find a solution before the first public hearing on the 2012 budget Thursday.
With two thirds of the budget spent on health care and the criminal justice system, the impact on north suburban communities like Glencoe, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Wilmette, Glenview, Northbrook and Des Plaines may be less painful than it will for those who more directly use county services, according to (D-Evanston).
Preckwinkle, Suffredin, and Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park), who represents Des Plaines, all made it clear neither the nor the Cook County Forest Preserves will be affected because they are covered by another budget.
“The Forest Preserve District is a separate taxing body and the overall shortfall does not have any bearing on their operations,” said Owen Kilmer, a spokesperson for the president’s office.
Goslin made it even clearer. “The Forest Preserve District is in good shape and [the county budget] will have no impact,” he said.
Suffredin and Preckwinkle stress this is the first draft of a preliminary budget and many things can change. “These are only preliminary figures so they may be different in the final budget,” Kilmer said.
The preliminary budget and Thursday’s hearing at 5 p.m. at the George Dunne Building, 69 West Washington Street, Chicago, are part of Preckwinkle’s
Suffredin thinks the more open process will give the public an opportunity to offer input and better understand its county government. “We have to see what happens on the the twenty-fifth and what passes,” he said.
None of the Commissioners could pinpoint any specific cuts in their districts. When asked about Des Plaines, Gorman seemed to think the community would not experience a significant reduction in services.
“Not really,” Gorman said of potential budget reductions effecting Des Plaines. “This is a very preliminary budget and it’s too early to tell.”
The primary reason for the projected deficit of $315 million is a lower revenue forecast. Income was reduced $317 million in the initial estimates. Expenditures are already $2.7 million less than planned, according to Kilmer.
Everyone agrees the County Board will not look for additional taxes to solve its problem. Goslin sees the shortfall as an opportunity for growth by the board as an institution. He is not willing to make any department safe from the effects of the scalpel.
“For each of us we will put more effort in how we operate and that is a good thing,” Goslin said. “With two thirds of the budget going to the jail and the health care system, I expect the bulk of the cuts to come from there. We will look at everything.”
While Goslin, Gorman and Suffredin were ruling out tax hikes, Preckwinkle was fast to explain the primary reason for the shortfall is the rollback of Cook County sales tax which was increased by her predecessor, Todd Stroger.
“Revenues are also lower because of the rollback of the sales tax that was a campaign promise,” Kilmer said. “Rolling back the sales tax is an important step in defining Cook County as the economic hub in part by reducing the stigma around Chicago and Cook County as having the highest sales tax in the nation.”
Streets in the northern suburbs are another area that should remain untouched, according to Suffredin. Projects currently planned will not be placed in anyone’s rear view mirror.
“The motor fuel tax will not be affected,” Suffredin said of the fund that pays for much of the road repair in the area. “[Projects on] Frontage Road [in Wilmette, Winnetka and Northfield], Oakton, Crawford and Old Orchard Road will go forward.”
The Cook County Sheriff’s Police unit, based in the Skokie Courthouse, contains a tactical gang unit and provides protection for the unincorporated areas of Northbrook and Glenview. Suffredin opposes reductions to that budget area.
“I don’t see any cuts in patrol areas at all,” Suffredin said. “The same goes for the tactical unit, the bomb squad and canine unit.”
Goslin and Gorman were not as quick to rule it out. “I can’t tell you there won’t be cuts there,” Goslin said. “There could be some cuts in that area as well.”
Overall health care costs may come down with the closing of Oak Forest Hospital in the far south suburbs. This move may bring additional benefits to the North Shore for those in need.
“As more people are unemployed in our area they will be able to rely more on our system,” Suffredin said. He was referring to a greater effort to make health care more community-based for people in more far flung areas of the county.
Goslin is hoping for revenue increases from moving clinics and other facilities to the suburbs. “We may see more income from Medicare and Medicaid,” he said. Many of the patients at Stroger Hospital in Chicago have no insurance and no resources to pay.