Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward) is expected to win her campaign for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners this fall. If she does, she'll inherit a government with a budget gap of at least $300 million ... and possibly much much more.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's announcement that he won't seek another term at the top of city government is the political story of 2010. Discussions about who will run for the post are taking place at a furious clip, meaning other campaigns could get overshadowed this fall. "There only is so much political energy in any town, even Chicago, and now all the energy here is going into the wide-open race for mayor," Crain's Greg Hinz pointed out in a post about the impact of Daley's decision on Gov. Pat Quinn's election campaign.
The gubernatorial race isn't the only race likely to receive less attention thanks to the anticipated free-for-all for the mayoral spot. Three candidates are seeking votes to become the next president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners: Democrat Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward), Republican Roger Keats, and the Green Party's Tom Tresser.
Preckwinkle is favored to win, given the county's overall tilt toward Democrats. And if she does, she'll inherit a government facing deep fiscal challenges. Cook County's budget deficit is officially estimated at $300 million, but Preckwinkle told Progress Illinois after a community meeting Tuesday she expects the ultimate gap to total some $500 million after contracts with unionized county workers are settled. That's out of an annual budget of $3 billion. She said county government has 11 elected officials and erasing the red ink will mean "begging, wheeling, and cajoling" with them over their share of the pie. Watch:
It is "a pretty grim situation we think we are facing," Preckwinkle went on to say. Earlier, Preckwinkle told reporters the county's 2011 budget was a "buzzsaw."
How might the gap be closed? Preckwinkle has already promised to tackle waste and inefficiency in county government. On Tuesday, she told Progress Illinois she anticipated budget cuts, though didn't know where they'd fall yet.
Some of the cuts are likely to hit county government's two biggest areas of expenditures. Approximately one-third of the county's budget goes toward health care and one-third goes toward criminal justice. To rein in costs in the latter, Preckwinkle has been up front about expanding prison diversion programs administered by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart's office, including the Day Reporting Center, the Work Alternative Program, and the Sheriff's Boot Camp. When working effectively, These programs have the added benefit of reducing recidivism, which is extremely common in Illinois.
The county's massive health care system, the provider of last resort for hundreds of thousands of low-income and uninsured residents annually, may prove more of a challenge. The system is already shifting toward outpatient care in neighborhood clinics, overseen by what's now a permanent Independent Governing Board, though the savings realized by that decision aren't immediately apparent, according to the Civic Federation.
Preckwinkle's got her work cut out for her should she win in November. Within a four-year term, she'll have to craft budgets in an era of declining government revenues and increased demand for services while figuring out how to roll back gradually the remainder of the sales tax increase pushed by the current board president Todd Stroger. In spite of the hubbub about Daley and the wide-open mayoral slot, these are issues Chicagoans and Cook County residents should scrutinize carefully.
Full Disclosure: The SEIU Illinois State Council, which sponsors this website, endorsed Toni Preckwinkle in the Democratic primary for Cook County board president.