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Q&A: Bridget Gainer on the New Cook County Budget

The commissioner talks about Cook County’s new budget (which includes 321 layoffs), how the cuts were decided upon, and where to get more revenue in the future.

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer   Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Last week the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a revised budget—a necessity after the reversal of the sweetened beverage tax left a $200 million hole in the budget. The county balanced it with cuts (321 employees were laid off, and more than 1,000 vacant positions will be closed) and other measures. There were no added or increased taxes, but that scenario is unlikely to hold for long. As I’ve written before, major sources of county revenues aren’t indexed for inflation, so they have declined in real terms over the years, putting pressure on the budget even as the number of employees has declined.

I spoke with County Commissioner Bridget Gainer about the cuts and future revenues shortly after the budget vote.

How do commissioners evaluate potential cuts?

Since I got to the board, I’ve tried to use this guiding principle: What does government have to do—because we’re the only ones, or the best ones, to do it? For the county, that’s running the jail, running the rest of the criminal justice system—the court system, the public defender, and all of that—the collection of taxes and assessment, and the public health system.

One of the things I’ve worked on since I came to the board, and have been joined by others since then, is ways to handle nonviolent offenders differently. You can be guided by mission, to say, you really don’t need to be housing nonviolent offenders in jail because they don’t have $500 for bond. Over the last three or four years there’s been an increased push on [not requiring cash bail], electronic monitoring, treating women differently (since 85 percent of them in the jail are nonviolent offenders), and how do we treat pregnant women who are in jail. The jail population as of today is 6,400 people, which is the lowest it’s been in about 15 years.

We’re still running the jail, but by looking at it through a lens of what’s the right way the most efficient way to do it, you can do something that achieves both justice and a better financial outcome.

So the new budget includes layoffs in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, but not the public defender?

Yes. Neither the public defender nor the state’s attorney took much of a cut.

Why was that decision made?

The jail population has dropped 30 percent. That doesn’t mean a 30 percent drop in correctional officers, but you could take reductions in the sheriff’s office, because their main responsibility, at least in the jail, is to oversee the detainees.

[To defer people from jail,] that’s a lot of the decision-making: How does somebody get charged? How does that case get prosecuted? Does it get deferred? So you need more people for the state’s attorney and the public defender. That’s where the balance was in parts of the criminal justice system. One had more demands than the other.

It’s like diagnosing a patient. It can’t be done by rote. If you’re going to try to reduce the jail population and be thoughtful about what kind of nonviolent offenders are eligible, [the public defender and state’s attorney] parts of the system need more input.

The Mortgage Foreclosure Remediation Program got suspended. Was that because of the drop in foreclosures?

The chief judge and I started the mortgage foreclosure settlement court at the height of the financial crisis. Cook County used to hear about 15,000 foreclosure cases every year. In the years following the financial crisis, in 2008, 2009, and 2010, they heard 40,000, 50,000, and then 55,000. The banks were still under the mantra of, if you’re late, you’re going to get a fine, and I’m going to foreclose on you. They don’t do that anymore. They’re much more likely to reevaluate a loan and refinance. Getting a mortgage is much harder now.

While you always need mediation services and that’s always helpful, we’ve kind of come out the other end. It was there to meet a specific need at the most urgent time.

Commissioner Chuy Garcia mentioned that, in the long run, there’s still concern that revenue and spending are out of balance. He said that budgets in the near future will have to have new sources of revenue. What directions do you think the county will be looking?

There’s perennial revenue opportunities. One of the things both Chuy and I have talked is taxes on things that are ancillary to the economy. Can you expand video poker and tax it? I hate video poker; I think it’s the lowest form of gambling, as far as it has none of the economic development benefits or the employment benefits of a casino, but it still takes as much out of people’s pockets.

What’s happening with medical marijuana? There’s an ongoing debate about whether we should be allowing personal-use marijuana, and if you legalize the personal-use pieces and tax it, does that create an opportunity?

In our health system, there’s a push toward getting more people enrolled in Medicaid, and then running what is really a managed-care program, more like an insurance program, as opposed to people walking in the door and not getting a bill.

Those are the things that I think will be considered. One of the reasons I think the beverage tax got such a violent reaction was that you have [increases in] a sales tax at the county level, an income tax at the state, and a property tax at the city. A lot of people felt all three of those. When the beverage tax arose, it just, to some degree, was too much. That’s something we’re going to be living with for a little while. We need to plan accordingly.

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