State Rep. Ann Williams (11th) and Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey outlined the good, the bad and the just plain ugly truths of local government budgets as they spoke to Tuesday night’s gathering of West Lakeview Neighbors, held at Mystic Celt (3330 N. Southport Ave.).
Although the county budget deficit has been cut nearly in half to $240 million, the final rollback of the “Stroger” tax will reduce the county’s income and force it to look for other cost savings, according to Fritchey.
“Most of the deficit comes from Stroger Hospital,” he said. “People come from Lake County, DuPage County and even Iowa. We’re reducing the deficit in the hospital, but it is still a drag.”
Fritchey hopes the recent decriminalization of marijuana will help plug the budget gap: He estimates that $83 million in tax dollars are spent annually to fund the war on marijuana, while 90 percent of the cases are tossed out. “I view the drug war as akin to prohibition,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense socially. It doesn’t make sense economically.” With the legislation only taking effect in late July, Fritchey hopes to book several million in savings over the next year through reduced police and court processing costs.
In one particularly illuminating example of government inefficiency, Fritchey highlighted how City Hall was paying two contractors to clean the same building: one for the Cook County side and the other for the City of Chicago side. Now, Fritchey says, one company cleans the entire building. “It’s common sense,” he said. “Balancing the county budget is like balancing a home budget. The mentality is changing and going in the right direction.”
Moving in the wrong direction: Illinois’ $83 billion pension obligation. “I spend more time talking, reading and hearing about the pension issue more than any other issue,” said Williams.
To deal with the state’s pension problem, Williams favors what she calls a local shift, which would move some of the burden of funding public pensions from the city to suburban districts. The proposal has received considerable resistance from suburban lawmakers unwilling to raise property taxes to meet their pension obligations.
“Chicago is paying for its teachers and for teachers around the state,” she said. If the current model holds, Williams envisions a point where the entire state’s budget will be used to fund pension obligations. “I don’t think the General Assembly can say no to changes.”
Other highlights from the meeting: