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ELECTIONS Cook County Board Pres. Preckwinkle talks accomplishments, plans, soda tax
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Toni Preckwinkle ( D ) has been the Cook County board president since 2010 and is running for a third term in the 2018 election. Her primary opponent is former Chicago Ald. Robert Fioretti.

Windy City Times: Why did you decide to run again?

Toni Preckwinkle: I have worked hard trying to reform Cook County government over the last eight years. In my view, it was important to continue that work for another four years to try and institutionalize some other reforms we have undertaken. We have worked hard to make our healthcare system sustainable and on criminal justice reform. Together, public health and safety are 90 percent of our budget so a lot of energy has gone into those two things.

WCT: What are the three accomplishments you are most proud of?

TP: I am really pleased that our public health system, which is half of our budget, continues to serve the people of Cook County. In the last four years, as a result of the Affordable Care Act ( ACA ), we have been able to add a managed care Medicaid expansion program called CountyCare that will have 400,000 members this year to the public health system ( two hospitals and 16 primary care specialist clinics ). Within CountyCare, every non-profit primary healthcare care facility ( safety-net and academic hospitals ) are a part of the network.

On the public safety side, when I was elected in 2010 there were nine to ten thousand people in the jails. Most of whom where there because they could not pay their bail, and the overwhelming majority of them were accused of non-violent crimes. When we started out seven percent of the people were serving a sentence and the rest, 93 percent, were awaiting trial. Of those who were awaiting trial, 70 percent were for a non-violent crime. When we got the stakeholders together in March 2011 after our first budget cycle to talk about public safety and how we could do better and measure our progress, the consensus was we needed to reduce the number of people accused of non-violent crimes who were awaiting the disposition of their cases in the jail. For two and a half years though, everybody from the Chief Judge to the Sheriff to the States Attorney to the Public Defender to the Clerk of the Court was committed to that goal, we still had roughly the same jail population. We asked for the Illinois Supreme Court's help in Nov. 2013 and they convened stakeholders with all of us working together ever since then and now the jail population is down to below six thousand people. This is because fewer poor people await the disposition of their cases in the jail. We started out with about two-thirds of the people who came into bond court having to pay 10 percent of their bond in cash and one-third of them were released on their own recognizance or under electronic monitoring and now it is the reverse. The result has been a dramatic decrease in the jail population.

Part of the rest of our budget deals with economic development and in my past life I worked in the City of Chicago's Department of Economic Development. When I got elected to this job I asked to have the bureau chief come and see me. There was no Bureau of Economic Development at the county level so we put together the capital planning community development building and zoning folks into the newly formed Bureau of Economic Development. We started our own Council of Economic Advisors with a couple dozen corporate leaders who advise us on how we can better use our own resources internally but also to build relationships with the business community. As a result of the council, we convened the leaders of the seven county region and asked them if it was possible to work with them on economic development and how we would do it in December 2013.

Over the last four years, Cook, the City of Chicago, DuPage, Lake, Kane, Kendall, Will and McHenry have been working around truck-permitting. We are the capital of the Midwest, so there is a lot of intermodal traffic from train to truck and truck to train, plus a lot of long-haul truck traffic through our region and we are trying to synthesize truck permitting. Compliance has been difficult because every village, town, city and township had different rules so we have been rationalizing that system and make compliance easier. We are working with folks in the metal-working sector because each of the seven counties has a strong metal-working component in their economy. We picked that one to help increase capacity and vitality. We are working with small and medium-sized businesses around exporting because of our exporting initiative where we are trying to enhance more foreign investment opportunities. Those are the four economic things we are working on. It is called the Chicago Regional Growth Corporation non-profit and we just formally incorporated.

WCT: How would you approach the job differently if you are re-elected?

TP: We need to continue the good work we have been doing to help make our healthcare system sustainable, drive down the jail population and our economic development initiatives.

A lot of what we will do is institutionalize the changes that we have made. I do not want to be in the position where we worked hard to make government more efficient and transparent and be succeeded by someone like Donald Trump and see those changes disappear.

WCT: What do you see are the most important issues still facing the county and how would you address them?

TP: Continuing to work on the healthcare system. Also, address the issues of criminal justice because the criminal justice system in Cook County and elsewhere has a disparate impact on Black and Brown communities. Half of the county is Black and Brown but 86 percent of the people in our jail are Black and Brown with most of them being Black. It is a reflection of hyper-policing Black and Brown communities in Chicago and the pervasive inequities in our criminal justice system. That is something we need to try and address. I am grateful to all the work of the stakeholders, in particular the good work of the Public Defender and the States Attorney, who have been driving our efforts to see that people are treated appropriately in bond court, which is the portal into the criminal justice system.

The Department of Economic Development supports affordable housing deals. They have been working closely with Cook County Housing Authority to provide affordable housing to our residents particularly in the southern and western suburbs.

The Department of the Environment and Sustainability has been working on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and community solar projects.

WCT: What additional measures would you advocate for to provide more transparency how the county government is run?

TP: We have done a lot of that work already. You can go online to find out who does our contracting and who their subcontractors are and how much of the contract that has been performed. There is a lot of transparency around our procurement process that did not exist when I came into office. We also have a lot of GIS data that is available to the public. Generally we put an emphasis on investment into information technology because in the past the county was negligent in making those investments.

My favorite story is shortly after I was elected I went to bond court and discovered they were still recording judges orders on carbon paper. We invested millions of dollars in technology upgrades across the county on everything from electronic medical records at the hospitals to a system in the public safety arena called the data bus where all the information related to our criminal justice system is available in one entity with only the appropriate people having access to certain data. We have been working on electronic data sharing among the stakeholders and that is true in terms of property taxation as well as public safety.

WCT: What, if any, interactions have you had with the LGBTQ community?

TP: I try to go to as many of the public events as well as be supportive of various community-based institutions. I have been to the Center on Halsted a number of times for activities and events, and marched in the Chicago Pride Parade for a number of years. Our staffing is open to people of all gender identifications and sexual orientations and one of our employees is a member of the LGBTQ community. My goal, as with other constituencies, is to be present at important occasions and be open to the concerns and issues that face those communities.

WCT: What do you see are the most important issues or obstacles facing the LGBTQ community and how would you address them?

TP: We have a president of the United States who thinks white supremacists are fine people, attacks immigrants, suggested Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers and tried to ban transgender individuals from the military. There are a lot of challenges emanating from Washington, D.C. and I think it is important for local government officials to be aware of the environment they are in and make it quite clear that the intolerance that is coming from Washington is not welcomed here. We are going to try and be as inclusive as we can in the face of federal assault on people's rights.

WCT: Are there any additional changes you would make in how the county jail and health and hospital systems are currently run? If so, what are they?

TP: We are going to continue to drive down the jail population. Many of the people in jail have been accused of low level drug offenses, prostitution, failure to pay child support or traffic tickets and shoplifting. Those people should never have been in jail in the first place. It does not make sense either from a social justice or fiscal point of view to keep people accused of non-violent crimes in the jail as they await their trial. It costs about $163/day to keep people in the jail and that is a lot of taxpayer dollars. Many people are not even convicted of the crime they have been accused of so to keep those folks in jail is not sound policy. We have worked hard to reduce the pre-trial detention and will continue to work on that. The long-term challenge is to make sure people get speedy trials because justice delayed is justice denied. The other focus is on the continuing issues with bond court. We have to ensure that the only people who go to jail are those who are a danger to the community and/or themselves and that is a relatively modest percentage of people who are arrested.

As for the health and hospital systems, we are going to continue our sustainability work but it is a challenge because there are 72 hospitals in the county and we have two of them ( Stroger on the near west side and Provident on the south side ) but we provide 45 percent of the charity care in the county. If this administration continues to obliterate the ACA and less people have insurance then more people are going to end up at our hospitals. That will be a strain on our system and we will have to figure out how to manage that care.

WCT: Now that is has been repealed, how do you feel about the soda tax?

TP: Over the course of seven years, we closed budget gaps of more than $2 billion, cut expenses by $657 million, reduced our workforce by 15 percent and indebtedness by 11 percent. In November 2016, we made about $65 million in cuts but realized we had a $200 million shortfall and usually the way you beat those shortfalls are with property and/or sales tax increases. Out of our 17 commissioners, no one supported an increase in the property tax, two said they would support increasing the sales tax with only one saying she would vote for it.

We looked for other sources of revenue and Philadelphia had just enacted its sweetened beverage tax and there were other places in California including Berkeley that had the tax. We thought this would be a way to raise revenue. We know that sweetened beverages contribute to diabetes, obesity, tooth decay and other health risks. It was passed narrowly and I cast the deciding vote because, ironically, the late Commissioner Robert Steele ( who would have been the ninth yes vote ) was in the hospital challenged by his diabetes. The American Beverage Association had been running ads challenging the beverage tax. The pressure on the commissioners to repeal the tax was pretty intense and then this fall we had a difficult budget process where we had to make about $200 million in cuts including laying off 321 people.

I would have preferred, if the commissioners would have supported it, to raise property taxes or even have an increase in the sales tax. The most progressive way to do it is to have a graduated income tax but that is not available to us. We need revenue to provide services and support the good work we do. I do not apologize for that. I always say if you want good government you have to pay for it. Sometimes, public policy is neither popular nor possible.

WCT: What do you see are the best ways to raise revenue so the budget is balanced that do not involve regressive taxation on everyone in the county?

TP: One of the advantages of the sweetened beverage tax is it was optional because you do not have to drink it and we know they are not good for you. It costs about $200 million in our public health system to treat people with diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

My view is of the taxes available the best option is to raise property taxes but there is no support from the commissioners. I can suggest all kinds of progressive ways to raise revenue but if there are not nine votes on the commission it does not matter.

We made some deep cuts in our budget because we did not have the revenue and without revenue we are going to continue to have budgets that require more cuts.

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