I voted “Yes” on both the 2017 Cook County Forest Preserve District and the Cook County budgets. The Forest Preserve District budget is essentially the same as those for the last three years. Although I vetoed the past two Cook County budgets, I believe the 2017 budget meets the needs of Cook County residents for efficient services.
The Cook County Budget
This budget does several things: a. Streamlines the County’s workforce by reducing the number of full time jobs by another 300 positions. In the last five years, Cook County has reduced the number of full time jobs by more than 6,000 position;
b. Stabilizes the Cook County Health and Hospital System staffing to meet changing patient needs through better planning by the Independent Board and better use of Public Health resources including Access to Care;
c. Increases the utilization of Cook County Care dollars to reduce the dependency of the Cook County Health and Hospital System on taxpayer support. In the last five years, taxpayer support has been reduced from $400 million to $111 million this year;
d. Provides adequate resources to run the Circuit Court of Cook County, the largest court system in the nation, through pretrial services, probation services, court interpreters, mortgage-foreclosure remedies, and educational programs;
e. Gives County lawyers in the State’s Attorney Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Public Guardian’s Office the full range of modern resources to properly do their job;
f. Continues to provide for the County’s pension obligations;
g. Updates technology for use by property tax agencies;
h. Works to reduce the population of the jail by nearly 2,000 people per week, while still protecting our community from the worst criminals;
i. Provides better services for the children at a newly revised Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and Juvenile Court; and
j. Provides for the consolidation of the Recorder of Deeds Office and the County Clerk’s Office, resulting in savings of $1 million.
This budget does contain the new “Sweetened Beverage Tax,” which taxes only those who drink these beverages.
This tax helps fight heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, and provides enough revenue to balance the budget without gimmicks.
Finally, this budget comes with the passage of both a binding resolution and ordinance that prohibits the County’s raising of any taxes – such as property taxes, sales taxes, and home-rule excise taxes – until after 2020.
The Cook County Forest Preserve Budget
Last year I warned that the 2016 budget was “… the best we can do now, but it is a budget that reveals the structural weakness of the non-home rule Cook County Forest Preserve District.”
Unlike Cook County, which is a home-rule government, the Forest Preserve can raise operating funds only through property taxes that are capped, fees from earned services such as campground rentals and golf fees, and fines from those abusing County lands through unlawful acts.
These limited sources of income are not adequate to properly fund essential activities, and I believe our duty as the largest preservation land owner in the State requires better resources.
The 2017 budget continues to provide limited support and encouragement for volunteers, limited resources for staff, limited restoration opportunities for our land, limited strategies to acquire additional land, improvements in recreational opportunities, and expansion of intern opportunities.
Again this year, the budget had input from the Conservation Council, whose role is to help us create a clear vision for the future. This Council has called for expanded restoration and land acquisition that are not funded in this budget.
The budget continues support of the two jewels that anchor the County’s outreach and educational programming – the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Brookfield Zoo – but at levels that are way too low to assist either in performing their missions.
Neither the Garden nor the Zoo can continue their level of excellence without increased funding, and it will require dynamic new ideas to develop plans to help the Garden and the Zoo expand their positive programming and to provide further opportunities to improve the land.
As with last year, this budget does not address the major governmental issue facing our state – pension payments. As with all Illinois governments, we must, as an employer, have a funding plan.
We must look for bold steps or we will fail.
It is time to trust voters and ask them to approve a referendum next year to do three things: approve funds to expand restoration services on Cook County land; acquire additional land while some still exists; and increase subsidies to the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Now is the time to plan. We need to trust voters to give wise guidance, so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of the land.