Preckwinkle opponent Bob Fioretti criticizes growth in county budget, opposes guaranteed income plan, wants to freeze hiring

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS

With her reelection bid just a month away, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unveiled an $8.75 billion budget Thursday that’s free of any new taxes or fees. The announcement comes the same day that applications open for the county’s $42 million guaranteed income pilot — one of several federal COVID-19 relief-funded initiatives she’s announced over roughly the past year.

Preckwinkle, a Democrat, is running for a fourth term leading the County Board against Republican nominee Bob Fioretti and Libertarian Thea Tsatsos. “Through judicious financial management, we are working to create a better tomorrow that isn’t at the expense of today,” Preckwinkle said in a news release. “In the face of multiple economic risks, Cook County has had its bond rating upgraded, continued making supplemental pension payments to put the County’s pension fund on a path toward sustainability and built up a manageable reserve fund.”

This summer, the county forecast the smallest gap of Preckwinkle’s tenure, $18.2 million, and said at the time it had no plans for tax or fee increases. Thanks to higher-than-forecast revenue figures — including $124 million more than it was expecting from sales taxes — the county did not need to make cuts to fill that gap, and also eliminated its wheel tax, effective next June.

The $8.75 billion figure is a 7.8% increase over this year’s budget. It’s nearly three times the size of Preckwinkle’s budget a decade ago. That growth, county officials said in a Wednesday afternoon briefing, has been driven by the expanding mandate of its flagship health system and steadily rising pension payments. The county’s budgeted workforce has grown by just over 3% in that time, but not all those positions are filled. Of the more than 23,500 positions budgeted in 2022, 4,000 are vacant.

Fioretti, a former Chicago alderman who previously ran against Preckwinkle as a Democrat, asserted in a phone interview Thursday that she “is once again increasing the size of Cook County government. When government grows, costs and taxpayers’ burden” grows. The roughly 4,000 job vacancies in the budget should be “not filled and frozen at this time,” he said.

The county has budgeted $491 million for pensions in 2023. Of that, $291 million is a supplemental payment the county has made for several years to prop up the pension fund’s lagging funded ratio. If those extra payments continue, finance officials estimate the fund will have 100% of the money it needs to pay out benefits by 2043. Without those extra payments — made annually through an agreement between the county and the fund’s board — it’s slated to be insolvent by 2055. The county has also socked away $140 million in a stabilization fund that it can tap in less flush budget years.

“This is something not a lot of governments can say and it’s practically unheard of when it comes to municipal pensions in our state,” Preckwinkle said during her Thursday budget speech of the county’s pension health, adding that the county has also decreased its outstanding debt during her tenure by over $700 million.

Still, her speech — which touched on low trust in government and the challenges facing democracy — also referenced the county’s readiness for “difficult days ahead.”

“Absolutely we’re worried about a recession,” Dean Constantinou, the county’s deputy chief financial officer, said on Wednesday, adding that the county was shoring up certain reserve funds as a bulwark against such a recession. “We anticipate that if there were a sector recession, it would cost the county about $100 million.”

Federal pandemic relief money continues to be a support pillar for the budget: Of the roughly $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money, the county allocated about $25 million in 2021 and $320 million in 2022, and plans to spend $270 million in 2023. The county estimates it will still have $300 million to spend between 2024 and 2026.

Among the planned spending of limited-time federal dollars: $75 million on violence prevention, a $12 million program to eliminate medical debt for qualified county residents, a $14 million program to expand homeless services for patients of Cook County Health, $10 million to remediate brownfields in suburban neighborhoods to spur development and a $20 million program with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago for stormwater management.

Rescue plan money will also fund the county’s guaranteed income program, which aims to provide $500 monthly payouts to 3,250 residents for two years.

Fioretti said he opposes the cash handout program because it doesn’t have sufficient requirements for participants.

“There’s no job training, no effort, no ability to have them become stakeholders in a system here. They’re just giving away $500 and nothing’s required of the individual,” he said, adding he thinks it will do little to address the county’s 13% poverty rate.

The no-strings-attached approach is exactly the point, Preckwinkle has said previously: “This red tape is not because of evidence but rather based on how our society views people in poverty and questions about whether they have the character or the ability to make decisions for themselves. To put it plainly, this paternalistic view is both inaccurate and unhelpful.”

Fioretti raised broader concerns about the use of federal COVID-19 relief money, saying it gives the public a “false sense of budget security” and should be analyzed closely. “There are ways to cut back on this budget and to serve the people,” he said.

County Commissioner Bill Lowry said this budget will likely be one of the easiest to vote for, thanks in large part to having ARPA funds on hand. “The other thing, and I can’t underscore this enough: While the budget continues to go up, we’re seeing the dollars that comprise the budget being utilized in real impactful, in long-term generational ways.”

Lowry, whose district includes the county-run Provident Hospital, was also happy to hear in Preckwinkle’s speech that the hospital is preparing for the imminent return of ambulance runs “for the first time in over 10 years.”

A revamp of Provident was recently put on hold for a third time, owing in part to cost overruns.

Given that many of the county’s open positions are at Cook County Health, Fioretti said he would abandon plans to revamp and expand Provident and instead repurpose the buildings as an inpatient mental health facility.

County officials are expecting the health fund to take a significant hit: It’s just unclear when. The state is expected to restart annual eligibility reviews for Medicaid — known as redetermination — in the coming months. County officials say they are unsure when it would happen, but are budgeting for it to happen Jan. 1.

That redetermination would likely result in thousands of current patients of Cook County Health’s Medicaid-backed insurance plan, CountyCare, losing their coverage, and the county losing out on reimbursements. That redetermination process could also send more uninsured patients to Cook County’s hospitals and clinics, driving up charity care costs.

Budget officials expect CountyCare membership to drop from roughly 426,500 this December down to just under 366,000 by next November.

The formal introduction of Preckwinkle’s budget Thursday will be followed by weeks of hearings and negotiating with the County Board.