Preckwinkle: Layoffs likely to close $315M budget gap

July 28, 2011 3:46:56 PM PDT
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle releases the board's preliminary budget Thursday, and she warns that it will include layoffs.

Preckwinkle is calling for additional cuts across the board. She says the county needs to fill a $315 million budget deficit.

Despite a decrease in spending, Preckwinkle says the huge budget hole comes from a big shortfall in the county's health system and a drop in revenues, including money lost from rolling back the sales tax increase. She says the biggest expense that is likely to be cut is payroll.

Eighty percent of the Cook County budget goes toward paying its employees. To close the estimated multimillion dollar deficit next year, the board president says everything is on the table including layoffs.

"I think it will be very hard to do this budget without layoffs, but the magnitude of the layoffs is the question, and I anticipate we'll get great cooperation from our unions and that we will be able to minimize layoffs," she said.

Preckwinkle is asking all the unions for input. American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME, suggests looking at efficiencies within the county before asking its workers to sacrifice.

"The employees, they live in the county, they pay the same county taxes and fees that all the rest of us do. And to think somehow they should make a bigger sacrifice than anyone else, that's not a notion I accept," said Henry Bayer, AFSCME Council 31 president.

Bayer says it was a mistake to roll back the Stroger sales tax, which brought in $53 million. Preckwinkle says eliminating the quarter percent sales tax increase was a campaign promise she was not going to break.

"I think it was the right thing to do. I'm convinced that we're going to be able to close the deficit despite the loss of revenue," she said.

Preckwinkle says an executive order calling for an across the board 5 percent spending cut will help as well a planned reduction in expenses. She says the problem is that revenues are decreasing because of shortfalls within the county's health system and court filings- such as divorce filings- are down. The Civic Federation agrees and says layoffs are inevitable.

"It's hard to see how you are going to close a $317 million deficit without reducing payroll," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation.

The Civic Federation, a non-partisan government accountability think tank, says if the state of Illinois would pay its Medicaid bills to the county and allow Oak Forest hospital to close, the budget gap would be reduced greatly.

A public budget hearing will be held August 25. This is the first time a board president has introduced a preliminary budget.

Preckwinkle is asking all commissioners for ideas on how to cut costs in their offices and countywide.

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