2012 County Leader of the Year: Getting down to business
First challenge: a $487 million budget deficit
Though the fiscal year already had started by the time she assumed office, Preckwinkle was greeted with the news that no work had begun on the budget, and soon after, that the county was facing a $487 million deficit. Preckwinkle was determined not to go back on her campaign pledge to roll back her predecessor’s hated 1 percent sales tax increase, which had given the county the unwanted designation as the jurisdiction with the highest sales tax burden in the nation.
Preckwinkle used one-time measures, like a moratorium on capital expenditures and a 16 percent decrease in overall county expenditures, to close the gap. She immediately began work on the next year’s budget, with a vow to move it to adoption before the Dec. 1 start of the fiscal year and present it in June, the earliest in county history.
To fill a $315 million deficit, Preckwinkle ultimately laid off 800 employees, added parking fees for public buildings and closed tax loopholes. A proposal to charge unincorporated areas for police services, which many saw as a long overdue reform, was set aside in favor of a commission to study the issue after fierce resistance from the affected areas.
She also revised the capital plan to initiate more than $400 million in funding over three years for regional capital projects, including investments in Cook County’s more than 1,500 lane-miles of roads. Three-quarters of the sales tax has been repealed, and it will be eliminated completely in the next budget. Ultimately, the budget was passed by an overwhelming margin before the fiscal year had begun.
“We found her as an individual willing to sit down and listen,” says John Daley, chair of the finance committee. “She has a new agenda for the county and is a very strong leader, but she’s willing to compromise. She’s a new breath of fresh air in county government.”
The Chicago Tribune also was complimentary of the president, citing many of her cost-cutting initiatives. “We like Preckwinkle’s budget primarily because we like its trajectory: less spending, fewer payrollers, and no general tax increase… We hope all taxpayers realize how fortunate they are that Todd Stroger no longer is proposing county budgets,” the newspaper wrote in its editorial page.
As part of the budget process, Preckwinkle held the first-ever public hearing on the preliminary budget and launched an interactive budget website to show residents how tax dollars were being spent, including a tool that allowed users to see how reducing expenditures or increasing revenues would affect the county’s projected budget gap. The website also allowed residents to give feedback to the administration through the “Tell Toni” feature. Her presentations were backed up with research, graphics and charts, which the public and legislators found persuasive.
Under her leadership, the county also has gained support from the county’s civic and business community to bring free assistance to the public sector to assist in reform efforts. Among the $5 million in projects that the cooperation has produced is a comprehensive program to review compensation, purchasing processes and energy use.
“She brought on a sense of urgency as well as hard work,” Msall says about the budget deliberations. “She has won over the city, civic and business leaders. She is willing to talk through issues and explain her positions.”
At the same time, Msall says that hard work remains. “We are not out of the financial woods,” he says. “There are areas that we still need to modernize.”