Cook County budget for 2024 has no new taxes or layoffs


Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is unveiling her $9.1 billion budget for 2024 on Thursday, a proposal she says closes a $161 million gap by, in part, eliminating hundreds of vacancies at the county’s flagship health system.

In a briefing with reporters ahead of her budget address, Preckwinkle said her plan has no new taxes, fines or fees, nor does it rely on layoffs.

“We’re in a very good place financially and programmatically we’re addressing some of the historic challenges the county has faced and some of the newer ones,” she said, because of “a foundation of tough decisions” made in prior years.

The budget next year will be nearly 4% higher, or about $342 million more, than the 2023 budget. A large portion will be spent on fixed charges — such as increased wages for current county employees and paying down pension costs that serve retired county employees.

The county is also budgeting $10 million for health care and transportation costs for some of the asylum-seekers who have arrived in Chicago and the suburbs in the past year.

While the $161 million budget gap was among the smallest since Preckwinkle took office in late 2010, the projected shortfall for the end of this fiscal year has nearly doubled since June. Her initial forecast pegged the deficit at just $86 million.

But the budget gap grew, officials said, in part because short-term labor agreements reached with most of the county’s unions — including retroactive raises dating back to December 2021 — drove up 2023 costs beyond budgeted totals. In all, retroactive raises paid to all county employees cost $101.6 million.

Another 5% pay hike for county employees included in the one-year extensions will land in June 2025.

Extending existing contracts for a year — rather than inking new ones — provided “labor peace, certainty for budgeting purposes, and close(d) the wage gap created by record high inflation by relieving the economic burden to our employees,” spokesman Nick Mathiowdis said in an email last month.

While empty positions can be a budget boon because planned spending on salaries never come to pass, hiring and retention have been an ongoing issue at the county.

Chief Financial Officer Tanya Anthony said 4,650 countywide positions — almost 20% of the county’s entire budgeted workforce — remain unfilled. Some unionized health care employees have complained about an overreliance on contract workers at the county’s network of hospitals and clinics.

A nationwide health care labor crunch has led to hospitals across the country not being able to hire as many people as they need and instead rely on contract workers for short stints at sometimes higher hourly pay than full-time workers earn. To address the problem, county health officials said they have held hiring fairs, established an externship program, offered tuition reimbursement for nursing-related programs and piloted a recruitment and retention bonus program.

Compared with 2023, the county is budgeting for 414 fewer full-time equivalent employees, a 1.7% decrease from the 23,760 positions budgeted last year.

The majority of vacancy eliminations are planned for Cook County Health. A total of 308 vacant full-time equivalent positions are slated to be cut there, most of which are roles that have gone unfilled for a year. The “preponderance” of those eliminated roles were nonclinical, and no nursing positions were cut, officials said.

Aside from “defunding long term vacancies,” the county’s gap was closed thanks to higher revenues than officials anticipated this summer and other expenditure cuts across departments.

The year 2024 will mark the county’s biggest spending surge in federal pandemic relief funds.

Through the end of August, the county had spent less than a third of its $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds. In 2024, it plans to spend close to $240 million.

Under federal rules, ARPA money must be spent by the end of 2026. But Preckwinkle intends to begin setting aside $158 million in unspent 2023 county dollars now to “carve a staircase into our fiscal cliff” after 2026, deputy Chief Financial Officer Dean Constantinou told reporters.

The county plans to continue to work to find additional dedicated funding to sustain ARPA programs. Among Preckwinkle’s previously stated priorities: continuing the guaranteed income program known as Cook County Promise.

Other offices receiving a slight boost: 16 more employees are budgeted at the county assessor’s office and the Board of Review to “alleviate to alleviate a backlog of property tax assessments and review of appeals.” Issues between the offices have contributed to delays in mailing out fall property tax bills. The county also plans to spend $9 million to equip sheriff’s officers with body-worn cameras.


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