Cook County

Judge rules Cook County properly used $240 million in transportation funds

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A judge has ruled that Cook County acted properly in their spending of nearly $240 million in transportation funds after a lawsuit was filed that alleged they had violated an Illinois constitutional amendment.

The plaintiffs in the suit have said that they will appeal the ruling.

The legal battle has been raging for years after the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association filed a lawsuit, along with numerous other groups, arguing that Cook County was violating the language of the “Illinois Transportation taxes and Fees Lockbox Amendment,” which passed during the 2016 election.

That amendment holds that no funds collected via taxes, fees, excises or license taxes related to transportation can be used for any other purpose.

The suit alleges that the county has been using funds to fill in other budget holes and pay for other programs, but Judge Alison Conlon sided with the county in her ruling issued Monday.

The suit identified six different taxes whose revenues fell under the purview of the Safe Roads, or "Lockbox," Amendment, and Conlon ruled that Cook County had used the revenues properly.

The county was found to have engaged MGT Consulting to assist it in determining how to allocate budget expenditures in compliance with the amendment. More than a dozen county departments were consulted as part of that process.

The county argued that all expenses were “related to the enforcement of traffic laws and the safety of roads.”

Conlon found that the county is “not spending transportation tax revenues on the ‘general costs of running a government,' as the plaintiffs in the case had alleged.

“The County is identifying certain traffic and transportation-related expenses within larger budget pools and allocating them as authorized expenses,” the ruling found.

The court also found that they interpreted the lockbox amendment more broadly than the plaintiffs in the case.

“Incarceration generates many costs, including providing food, shelter, medical care and clothing. Out of context, one might question how laundry is related to transportation. But in context, it is apparent that the costs of laundering a traffic inmate’s uniform is part of the chain of public safety,” the court found.

As a result, the court ruled that the expenses for inmates are ‘sufficiently direct’ for purposes of the amendment.

The IRTBA is a group representing companies and contractors that “design, build and maintain the state’s highways, transit systems, railways and aviation systems,” according to its website.

They had originally filed suit against Cook County’s practices in 2018, but a Cook County Circuit Court judge dismissed the case for lack of standing in 2019.

The Illinois State Supreme Court later reversed that ruling in 2022, allowing the legal action to proceed.

“We’re talking about over $200 million a year,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a very serious amount of money that ought to be spent on transportation under this constitutional mandate, which 80% of people in Illinois approved at the ballot box in 2016.”

It is unclear when the appeal will be filed in the case.

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