It's a good-news budget, without higher taxes, fines or fees, designed to smooth the way into next year's election. Preckwinkle is seeking a second term, and all 17 County Board seats are on the ballot.
The $3.2 billion budget introduced Thursday also reflects some tough decisions made in previous years, including higher fees and taxes, most notably last year's $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase. The hikes, coupled with spending cuts, compensated for eliminating a much-criticized sales tax increase under Preckwinkle's predecessor. The 2014 budget "is the product of three years of work that we have done together," Preckwinkle told commissioners.
Still, county government faces some tough financial decisions in the coming years, with debt payments scheduled to increase significantly and some tax collections expected to decline. In addition, the county is struggling to find a way to repair an underfunded government worker pension system.
"We're continuing to work on our pensions," Preckwinkle later told the Tribune editorial board, noting that fixing the system would require action at the state Capitol, where legislators are focused on the state's pension woes.
Budget Director Andrea Gibson said that even with debt payments expected to rise, the projected budget gaps in coming years are much smaller than when Preckwinkle came into office.
About $97 million of next year's shortfall would be erased through enrollment of new and existing Health and Hospitals System patients in Medicaid through the federal Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
So far the county has accepted nearly 110,000 applications for CountyCare, and it expects to get $278 million next year to care for patients newly enrolled in Medicaid, Preckwinkle said. As a result, the county will provide more services at greater cost but rely less on local tax collections for health care than in previous years, officials said.
To close the rest of the gap, the county would cut spending by $38.6 million, including $14.4 million in employee health and pharmacy costs. About $2.2 million of the health care cuts would be achieved by ending a decades-old deal under which more than 350 Cook County Circuit Court judges get health insurance for less than $1 a month.
An additional $15 million would be saved by eliminating 20 percent of the jobs that are vacant in all branches of county government. In making that move, Preckwinkle rejected a request from Chief Judge Timothy Evans for 100 more employees, noting that he had about 175 unfilled vacancies.
The only other separately elected countywide official who did not agree to the amount of funding was State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Preckwinkle said. The state's attorney needs the extra money to move cases through the system more quickly, which Preckwinkle wants, an Alvarez spokesman said.
"The bottom line is that you cannot severely underfund a system and then expect it to function most efficiently," Sally Daly said.
An additional $6 million or so would be saved through contract modifications, Gibson said. The county also expects to save money through energy efficiency measures and centralization of vehicle repair and fueling.
County budget officials also are projecting that tax collections will increase by about $16.5 million. Sales, cigarette and real estate sales taxes all are on the rise, Gibson said, while efforts to collect taxes the county is owed are paying dividends.
Overall county spending is expected to increase by about $259 million, mostly because of increased health care costs funded through Obamacare and a federal court requirement to put more staff at the Cermak Health Services facility, which serves people detained at the Cook County Jail.
Sheriff Tom Dart also must hire more people to staff the jail because of a court order. In addition, the county is hiring 47 people paid with outside grant funding to get a new county land bank started and to add staff to the county Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The county also plans to spend $10 million more to run its Juvenile Detention Center because of a state law treating most 17-year-olds charged with felonies as minors rather than adults.
Although spending on construction and other projects is going down, the county does plan to spend $40 million to upgrade "woefully outdated" computer systems for county finances, the property tax system and the public safety system that includes the courts and jail.
Laurence Msall, president of the nonpartisan Civic Federation budget watchdog group, said he had yet to comb through the budget but had praise for what he's learned so far.
"This is a good-news budget on the surface for Cook County taxpayers, for the citizens of Cook County," Msall said. "It shows a great deal of restraint on the part of the county, not going to tax increases."