Cook County reallocates $70M for migrants from health care to food service in Chicago

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Citing the changing needs of incoming migrants to Chicago, the Cook County Board of Commissioners Thursday approved a transfer of $70 million originally dedicated to providing them health care to instead cover costs of food service for new arrivals.

The funding represents the majority of the $100 million Board President Toni Preckwinkle dedicated in her $9.6 billion 2024 budget to the county’s Disaster Response and Recovery Fund. The remaining $30 million was allocated toward “municipal or local government costs” related to incoming migrants and “other disasters that may happen in 2024.”

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Cook County legal counsel Laura Lechowicz Felicione said last year’s migrant health care expenses, which totaled $25 million, were covered by surplus dollars and “various expense lines, mostly in salaries and wages.”

“We expect that we’ll be able to cover that expense again this year” using the surplus, she said. That frees up the $70 million to reimburse the city of Chicago for costs related to feeding asylum-seekers in intake or shelters. The resolution leaves room for the money to also be used to support other “costs related to funding operations for the new arrivals.”

County officials elaborated in a press briefing Thursday afternoon, saying these additional costs would be determined in partnership with the city if money is left over once migrant food needs are met, but could include shelter operations for the asylum-seekers.

Though the County Board unanimously approved reallocating the funds to the city, several commissioners Thursday expressed concerns over changing investments to care for migrants. Commissioner Tara Stamps said during discussion of the resolution in the Finance Committee she felt other pressing needs in her community were not being adequately addressed.

“When we allocate, spend, reallocate, whatever thing we’re doing with the money — that is very apparent, gets reported out in every news outlet, and people see that,” Stamps said. “The amount of money that’s been dedicated to this humanitarian effort, which I’m really clear about, is impacting other communities in a way that is so visceral and is blowing back on the people that represent them. And so I think that we’re gonna have to address that in a way that makes sense.”

Several commissioners also emphasized the importance of the board maintaining oversight over city spending of the funds.

“This has been an issue that people want transparency on,” Commissioner Bridget Gainer said. “We do not want to make it difficult, but we also don’t want to just hand it over without being able to see the changes, because the umbrella is large.”

In response to these concerns, Preckwinkle said after the vote Thursday that the county will receive invoices before reimbursing the city of Chicago for the food expenses.

Separately, Chicago aldermen delayed a vote Wednesday on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to allocate $70 million toward caring for migrants. The plan could resurface for another full City Council meeting Friday.

ostevens@chicagotribune.com