In the midst of an election year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has some good news to woo voters: likely no layoffs, new taxes or tax hikes heading into the next budget year.
And the county expects to kick off its next fiscal year $18.2 million in the red — the smallest budget gap since Preckwinkle took office in 2010.
“We entered into this very difficult pandemic period on a really strong financial footing, and as a result we’ve been able to weather it a lot better than other local governments,” Preckwinkle said during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.
Still, county finance leaders cautioned that there are signs of a recession ahead, and there’s already a tight labor market that’s made it tough for the county to hire more employees. Additional workers are needed to help pull off the county’s bold initiatives — with more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds — before the money runs out.
Preckwinkle kicked off a months-long budget season when she unveiled the county’s preliminary budget forecast for the 2023 fiscal year, which starts on Dec. 1, and offered a glimpse into how Cook County might end the current fiscal year.
This budget season is unique, as Preckwinkle will be asking voters this fall for another term around the same time she pitches her proposed 2023 budget to Cook County commissioners who must approve it. They’re up for election, too.
Between now and then, an annual ritual takes place. Preckwinkle will negotiate with elected and appointed county leaders who run the government’s public jail, health system, courts and more. And commissioners will weigh in.
How this budget year could end
The county this year has an $8.11 billion budget and nearly 24,000 full-time employees. Still, there were plans to hire more people to help carry out dozens of initiatives for county residents and businesses: launching a guaranteed income program, erasing medical debt, increasing behavioral health care, to name a few.
Not being able to hire as many workers ironically became a silver lining. The county expects to end 2022 with a surplus of nearly $263 million, in part from saving money on payroll. The county was buoyed in other ways: late property tax payments and collecting more fees from people who bought homes in the frenzied housing market.
During the pandemic, the state also stopped requiring low-income and disabled people from having to prove they’re still eligible for Medicaid health insurance. That helped Cook County’s large Medicaid health plan swell with members, and reap the revenue that followed them. That’s because the state pays health plans per member.
What lies ahead in 2023
County leaders predict 2023 will be tougher financially. The economy is taking a hit, with the war in Ukraine driving up gas prices, which then trickles down to residents who decide to save instead of spend.
“A lot of our revenues are economically sensitive, like 65% of them,” said Dean Constantinou, Cook County’s deputy chief financial officer.
That means when people spend less, fewer dollars flow into county coffers.
The tax on cannabis hasn’t generated as much revenue for the county as expected either. Unions contracts have resulted in higher salaries. And the state is expected to resume at some point this year requiring Medicaid recipients to once again show they’re eligible for their health insurance, which likely will lead to some people losing their coverage — and the county losing the revenue those enrollees generate.
Israel Rocha Jr., who runs the county’s vast public health system, said the county is reaching out to its Medicaid enrollees to make sure they know the state will need certain documents to continue qualifying for health insurance.
For next year, the county expects to tighten the belt, though leaders would not yet say how they plan to do so.
“That’s what the next several months will be based on trying to determine and develop,” county budget director Annette Guzman said.
Despite the big surplus expected for the end of the current budget year, those dollars likely will be headed to bolster the county’s reserves — not to plug the $18.2 million projected budget gap in 2023. Instead, “if push comes to shove, and we are seeing recessionary indices on the horizon that are starting to drastically impact our revenue next year,” it’s possible the county would tap federal COVID-19 relief dollars to fill the gap, Guzman said.
The public can weigh in on the county budget during a virtual town hall meeting planned for July 11.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.