Cook County

Lawsuit alleges Cook County used nearly $240 million in transportation funds for other projects

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A decision is expected soon in a lawsuit that alleges Cook County officials have been improperly taking hundreds of millions of dollars from transportation projects and moving it to other portions of the county’s budget.

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 was overwhelmingly supported by voters in 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.

“I think the taxpayers will be very surprised how the county is spending these transportation tax revenues,” attorney John Fitzgerald said.

The suit identified six different taxes whose revenues should fall under the purview of the Safe Roads 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 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.”

While Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s most-recent budget projected a surplus, the plaintiffs in the case argue that the figures were achieved on the backs of the transportation funds, which they say are being used for projects at the Cook County Jail, Juvenile Detention Center, and in the Social Services Department.

“The programs that the county is spending this money on, they don’t even come close to being a valid transportation purpose,” Fitzgerald said.

In legal filings, Cook County officials argued that they had the right to “pay for expenses related to enforcing vehicular laws and road safety beyond filling potholes.”

Fitzgerald and the IRTBA dispute the county’s characterization of the spending, and say that they expect a ruling in the case soon.

“We have presented our legal arguments to the court, and we expect a ruling any day now,” Fitzgerald said.

A ruling in the case is expected on, or before, Monday, though attorneys on both sides expect an appeal in the case.

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