Toni Preckwinkle has a big mess to clean up.
If elected, the Democratic nominee for Cook County Board president is facing a deficit of $500 to $600 million and a budget that needs to be cut by 15 percent.
At the downtown offices of the Cook County Democratic Party, Preckwinkle sat down this week to talk about how she plans to save money. Her main ideas: divert non-violent prisoners to treatment programs and help the county compete for health care dollars.
The first half of Todd Stroger’s one percent sales tax increase has been eliminated. When would you take the other half-percent off?
I’ve committed that I’d do that over the four years, but not when I walk in the door, because I’ve got to figure out what the heck is going on. Given what you've read in the newspapers, it looks more complicated than I expected.
Does the county have too many employees?
I think it can’t afford the number of employees that it has. I talked after the election to John Daley, and he said he’d been telling people that there was going to have to be a 15 percent cut in the budget to reflect the loss of sales tax revenue. I met with John Chambers, former county comptroller, and he said there was a structural deficit of $500 to $600 million.
What about political appointees put in there by the current board president?
Every executive has the right to install their own team. My assumption is that most of the people who were placed in their positions by Todd Stroger will not be carried over.
How many is that?
Are those positions that you’re going to fill, or can some of those positions be eliminated?
Well, we’ll see when we get there.
Can you talk a little about more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration at the jail?
The sheriff has a diversion program called "day reporting." It has about 200 people in it, and I think it needs to be ramped up substantially, because they’re non-violent offenders. And they are treated first for their substance abuse. I talk to people over at the jail who say we should be able to reduce the population by a third and be able to focus our resources on violent offenders.
Cutting by 15 percent, how do you do that without reducing the health care services the county provides?
We’re going to have some difficulty on the health care side. I’m told that the independent governing board overestimated their revenues by $80 million. There’s stimulus money, and then there’s Disproportionate Care Hospitals, they call it DISH money, that the health system gets. It's unclear what's going to be the fate of DISH dollars, and the stimulus money runs out next year. Those have been a substantial boost to the health care budget, and I’m not sure what happens going forward.
In the long run, do you think that health care reform can take some of the burden off the county?
I’m hopeful. The fact that more people will have coverage is helpful, because we provide care to people without coverage, and if more people are covered, that’s to the good. However, what’s happened with obstetrical care is that people who don’t have pre-natal care go to Fantus Clinic for their pre-natal care. They deliver elsewhere, because they now have state support for pregnant women and infants that allows them to choose their provider and the provider gets reimbursement for their deliveries. So, while we still have an incredible patient load of pregnant women at Fantus Hospital, there are fewer and fewer deliveries at County. We've got to make County Hospital the provider of choice for people who will now have federal dollars elsewhere.
Do you think it's easier for someone like you, who has a community base and an ethnic base, to get elected as a reform candidate? You united the African-American community and the liberal community.
I think it’s a little more complicated than you think. I got about a third of the vote in the African-American community, so the African-American community was divided between the incumbent and Dorothy Brown and myself, and I think what was unexpected was that I did really well in a number of white wards and townships. I think I started out in this race as a long shot. I think the reason that Terry O’Brien got in the race is that he figured he was a shoo-in, because there were three African-American candidates, and why wouldn’t he win, therefore?
Why do you think you did so well in those white wards and white communities?
First of all, we went everywhere. From the very beginning, we decided we were going to run a campaign that was countywide and not parochial, provincial, ethnic-based, geographic-based. There’s some places that I went that I saw Todd or Dorothy and Terry wasn't there, and some places that I went that only Terry and I were there.
Do you think that you were able to express the same kind of appeal, the same kind of image that had made Barack Obama so appealing to those communities?
I think I surely benefited from the fact that many of these voters had voted for an African-American for president, but we had to make our case ourselves.
Get Breaking SMS Alerts: News happens at inopportune times, like during the Super Bowl (thanks, Scott Lee Cohen). But you can still be the first to know when political news breaks:
Text WARDROOM to 622669