Balance budget, build the trust

County Board chief's mission couldn't be clearer

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

While any candidate who won office on Tuesday will wake up challenged by a budget deficit, Cook County Board President-elect Toni Preckwinkle will face a double whammy.

Not only will Preckwinkle have to deal with a budget gap that could be anywhere between $300 million to $500 million, she will be expected to clean up a branch of government that has been stigmatized as inept, corrupt and the stomping ground for patronage workers.

I recently sat down with Preckwinkle at 312 Restaurant on La Salle to find out how she intends to reduce the deficit, as well as manage voter expectations.

“The county didn’t get into such a mess overnight. It will not get out of this mess overnight,” she said.

“Clearly, there has to be some tremendous changes in the first two years to deal with the budget deficit and ongoing personnel scandals.”

Preckwinkle disputes the deficit projections that have been made, including a recent study by the Civic Federation that put the county’s budget woes in the neighborhood of $285 million.

“It doesn’t count any money we have to pay in settlement of labor union contracts that expired in December of 2008, and there’s a big class-action suit against the sheriff’s office for more strip searches,” she said.

“So, it is not a question of whether or not the county is in a terrible financial state. It is just how bad it is.”

Even so, Preckwinkle said she wouldn’t back away from her pledge to eliminate the sales tax increase that helped bury her predecessor.

“In the inaugural address, I will be very honest about where we are, not just the fiscal problems but the perception among the public that county government is at its core corrupt and incompetent,” she said.

Besides the constitutional offices, Cook County Jail, the Juvenile Detention Center and Stroger Hospital, there are 60 other agencies listed under county government, including the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden.

Yet, the perception among many is that Cook County government primarily impacts minorities.

Preckwinkle wouldn’t give an opinion about why this is so, but pointed out that the health care system serves the working poor and working-class people who don’t have insurance.

“There are all kinds of people of all nationalities in Cook County for whom that applies,” she said.

“The larger argument is, even if you are someone who doesn’t use the system, you have to understand that it is in your interest for people who don’t have insurance to have good health care. Do you want people who have TB or STDs or other communicable diseases not to be able to have health care?” she asked.

“If you make your leadership team as diverse as possible, you can insulate yourself against the perception that county government is just for black people,” she continued.

“The county can’t be seen as the preserve of a few ward organizations and politically connected individuals,” she said.

For Preckwinkle, getting into office was the easy part.