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On November 14, 2014, the Cook County Board passed the 2015 Budget. For the first time, I voted against the overall budget. I did this because the budget was not transparent enough and it hid serious structural flaws that postpone serious funding deficits until next year.
This budget contains no new taxes, fees or fines. It does signal that significant revenue increases will be necessary next year to meet our healthcare and pension needs. Postponing bad news does not eliminate it. There is no planning for next year built into this election year budget. Transparency requires that I warn people of the coming budget storm. The failure to 1) properly address our increasing jail population, 2) shore up CountyCare; and 3) stabilize our government in the face of pension changes will have a profound impact on the future of Cook County.
A year ago, I hailed a budget that showed promise to save money and provide quality service. It was a sea change for Cook County; making Public Safety the cornerstone of the budget rather than Healthcare.
Unfortunately, this change did not work. I had hoped that today I would be reporting to you that we had reduced crime and made progress on reducing recidivism. Instead, I report to you that much more work is needed.
I offered amendments and ideas to strengthen our commitment to expanding successful pretrial service programs and diversion programs run by the Chief Judge and supported by the best efforts of the State’s Attorney, Public Defender and Sheriff. Those efforts failed.
Our Pretrial Services have saved the County millions of dollars and caused thousands of individuals to be put on supervised bail release. These efforts cause a reduction of the jail population where we warehouse too many mentally ill and drug dependent people. Furthermore, these efforts cause successful supervision of people on bail bonds who are able to get the mental health and drug treatment they need to straighten their life out.
Failure to properly fund Pretrial Services and diversion programs costs Cook County taxpayers. While I expect to pass a resolution to study this issue during the next year, any real savings will not happen until 2016.
A year ago, I reported our great success at the Cook County Health and Hospital System with the Affordable Care Act and the 1115 Waiver. The 1115 Waiver allowed us to create County Care, a program that allowed us to enroll new Medicaid qualified patients a year early, allowing us to increase revenue by almost $700 million in 2014. These patients were previously being treated at the expense of Cook County taxpayers.
Today, for the first time in the history of our Health System, more than 50% of our patients are covered by some form of insurance. But with these changes come new challenges, as federal eligibility rules and private insurance payment requirements strain our staff resources. I do not believe this budget puts enough resources into recovering every last dollar earned, and therefore we will face a potential deficit in 2016 driven by increasing costs and reduced payments. For example, many of our newly insurance covered patients have very high deductibles. Cook County will not get paid until theses deductibles are met. I have introduced a resolution which will let us develop strategies to help patients meet their deductibles so we can maximize our reimbursement.
While Pretrial Services and the Health System is a priority, the largest financial issue facing us is the need to increase pension payments and plan for changes caused by the anticipated large number of retirements in key jobs at the Health System and in the Sheriff’s Office.
On the Pension payment front, even the best scenario projects that we would need an increase in payments of $160 million in 2015. What the final number will be is dependent on what the Illinois Supreme Court does in ruling on the constitutionality of the State pension bill and what changes the Illinois General Assembly passes. I tried to increase our pension payments this year but was met with strong resistance. I was able to get a reserve fund established that may or may not have enough money in it to make an extra payment this year.
Besides the Pension payment issue the other looming problem is that any changes in the pension law will cause significant increases in retirements. It is estimated that up to 1500 employees in the health system and 500 employees in the Sheriff’s Office would retire the day any County pension bill passes the General Assembly. There is no plan in this budget to deal with these massive retirements. Any change at the Health System and Sheriff’s office staffing puts the County at financial risk for not meeting minimum staffing requirements under Court orders and federal rules.
Finally, I voted “No” on this budget because I respect our County taxpayers and our County employees. I know how hard our taxpayers work and we must protect their pocketbooks, health and safety. Our workers are the best and they deserve a budget that supports their efforts and guarantees them a fair pension.
I voted “No” because someone has to point out the future has many land mines that that can destroy the many good things the County has done in the last four years. We must plan for our economic future and face our battles in pensions, public safety, and healthcare immediately. This budget does not do that.