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Brandon Johnson

Democratic candidate for Cook County Board (1st District district)

Brandon Johnson

Brandon Johnson

Democratic candidate for Cook County Board (1st District district)

B.A. in Human Services, Youth Development Programming and Management, M.A. in Teaching from Aurora University
Political Organizer, the Chicago Teachers Union
Past Political/Civic Experience
No previous elected office.

Responses to our questions

In preparing future budgets, Cook County may face rising costs and static revenues. How should county government evolve? What specific finance strategy will you encourage for producing balanced budgets? Please be decisive.

As a home-rule municipality, Cook County has revenue options for addressing its budget challenges.

One would be to tax corporations via a county head tax. This proposal could be structured to incentivize hiring of Cook County residents from areas of high unemployment rather than those from outside the county. Any such tax must not include an opt-out clause.

Furthermore, tax incentive packages can be improved to better protect Cook residents' interests. For example, the County has already created conditions on incentives - if a company received the benefit it has to use county's workforce development non-profit. Additional conditions could be added, such as if promised job targets are missed, County tax incentives could be revoked. The key is enforcement. Finally, as a Cook County Commissioner, I will be an aggressive advocate for a timely budget, progressive revenue and equitable school funding at the state level since the State of Illinois owes the County large amounts of money for essential services, and the State's inadequate education funding puts significant pressure on local property taxes.

If faced in budget debates with cutting the county's payroll or raising taxes, which one will you choose, and why? Please be decisive.

Right now, there are neighborhoods and populations (e.g. young African-American males) in the 1st District that are experiencing unemployment rates as high as 30%. These unemployment rates mirror those experienced during the Great Depression. Now isn't the time for county government to exacerbate the problem with layoffs. Cutting the county's payroll is a euphemism for hurting communities already suffering from joblessness, crime, and lack of investment. These job losses make these communities less safe and less viable for private sector investment. Furthermore, eliminating these jobs has several negative consequences for other county residents.

First, it diminishes critical county services, increasing wait times and unreliability.

Second, in general it increases the county's reliance on overtime which in some instances can be even more costly than employment.

Lastly, it increases the pool of folks who will either be dependent on county social services or forced to leave the county and take their future property and sales taxes with them. Both of these outcomes hurt the county's fiscal position.

As I mentioned in my previous answer, the county has several potential progressive revenue sources at its disposal to meet its budget requirements without overburdening the middle and working class. Those opportunities must be vetted and pursued before layoffs are considered.

Do you favor or oppose privatization of county services and downsizing of the county's workforce?

I oppose privatization, consolidation, and closures.

The relative stability of the county health system has reduced the costs to taxpayers. How can the county now stabilize the finances of the public safety and court systems?

Cook County spends over $330 million a year of taxpayer dollars to maintain the jail campus. Every day, thousands of individuals are detained there — not to serve a sentence, but to await their trial, largely for a non-violent offense. It costs $143 dollars a day to detain someone — who is most likely there for inability to pay bail prior to trial. In recent years, Cook County has reduced its jail population by roughly 20 percent. In turn, it has begun to demolish a part of the jail campus. When demolition of the jail began in November 2016, the County estimated the savings at roughly $1.3 million in annual operating costs and avoidance of over $172 million in required capital improvement costs. We need to continue these efforts — pushing for community-based alternatives to incarceration — all of which are cheaper to taxpayers and better for individuals.

What is the role of the County Board in accelerating criminal defendants' time to trial and otherwise speeding up the flow of court cases? What if any changes do you propose for defendants' pre-trial release and electronic monitoring?

Chicago Appleseed did a study of the pretrial process several years ago and found that the backlog is largely due to courtroom management. The study determined that judges were granting too many continuances. That report stated that in one month 16,000 continuances were requested and only five were denied.

In order to expedite cases, judges need to set firm trial dates. Judges who have mastered their court calls should serve as mentors to other judges. An unfortunate consequence of the backlog is that defendants who are unable to post bail linger in jail while they await trial. For many, this results in the loss of employment, housing, and child custody.

Additionally, excessive delays can be traumatic for victims who have to repeatedly attend court dates and continuances may lead to a loss of memory for victims and witnesses. The County Board can encourage Judge Evans, the State's Attorney, and Public Defendant to take proactive steps to alleviate the causes that are attributable to their respective offices. The County and Judge Evans are to be commended for taking affirmative steps to require affordable bonds and I-bonds for defendants who are no risk to the public.

This is the right thing to do and a move that is being witnessed in various localities around the United States including: Harris County, Texas; Jackson, Mississippi; Arizona; and Washington D.C. Men and women should not languish in jail simply because they are too poor to post bond. I-Bonds are the best option for all but the most dangerous defendants.

If an I-bond is not a viable option based on a validated risk assessment then electronic monitoring is the next best option. However, electronic monitoring should be used sparingly because of its expense and the stigma associated with it. The Illinois Department of Corrections estimates that electronic monitoring costs approximately $3.72 per day, per offender. Although cheaper than incarceration, which costs approximately $162 a day, it is still more costly than an I-bond.

Furthermore, electronic monitors are typically a curfew tool, defendants have to be in the house at certain times but the monitors don't tell officers where defendants are when they are not at home. It is important to remember that most defendants are charged with non-violent offenses and the vast majority return to court as required.

In Washington D.C. where cash bond is virtually nonexistent, 90% of defendants returned to Court as required, 91% did not commit any new offenses while awaiting trial, and 99% were not rearrested for a violent crime. A collateral consequence of the overuse of electronic monitoring and incarceration is that both have negative impacts on a person's ability to contribute to his or her family and community. Employers are reluctant to employ men and women who have electronic monitors due to the stigma associated with the monitors.

Electronic monitoring is certainly better than incarceration, but it is important that it not be overutilized. It should be used to monitor high risk defendants and not low or medium risk defendants.

Do you favor or oppose contracting with municipalities or other public bodies to take over services now provided by the county's highway department, the forest preserve police, and other county-run offices? Please be specific.

I have not seen or heard that the municipalities have the desire or capacity to take on these responsibilities. My primary focus is incorporation — specifically of unincorporated areas — to more effectively streamline the execution of County services.

Do you believe unincorporated areas of Cook County are paying their share for services provided by the county? What if any changes do you propose?

Roughly 2.1% of the County's 5.28 million residents live in unincorporated Cook County. Currently, Cook County spends a significant amount of resources on the provision of services, such as building/zoning permits and inspections and the provision of police patrol services, to unincorporated areas and residents. These services represent the types of services that the 98% of County residents who live in municipalities receive from their local municipal government. However, the revenues from unincorporated areas do not fully cover the costs and the financial gap that remains must be covered by general County revenues, which are paid by incorporated and unincorporated residents alike. Recently, the Civic Federation put this gap at roughly $18 million annually. This is money that could be allocated to the County's primary functions. That is why I support the annexation of unincorporated areas of Cook County. However, I'm also aware of the infrastructure challenge this presents given the wide range of geography, size and socio-economic make up of unincorporated areas. I commit to working with the county's Taskforce and the relevant agencies to help in whatever way possible.

What specific changes, if any, do you advocate for Cook County's property assessment system? Do you favor or oppose creation of an office of tax administration to combine functions now performed by several offices?

The property tax assessment system clearly needs important changes: 1. Residential assessment methodology needs to be fair. The system must ensure that properties in low-income areas are not being over assessed and that properties in high-income areas are not under assessed. 2. Commercial properties should better reflect market values and not automatically return to their last assessed valuation in the event of a successful appeal. 3. The County should use industry-standard assessment practices and invest in appropriate IT infrastructure to carry out this important work. I am against consolidations and closures within our tax administration, especially when there is evidence to suggest that more, not less capacity may be needed, for the efficient and accurate assessment and collection of property taxes.

For incumbents: During your current term, on what proposed ordinances have you been the primary sponsor? For challengers: What proposed ordinances would you introduce?

One ordinance I would pursue is the Responsible Business Act, which would levy an annual charge on large employers in Cook County for each of its low-wage employees. This policy would incentivize large companies to raise their wages to a living wage. Those corporations choosing to not raise their wages would be assessed a fee earmarked for several specific purposes, including recoupment of unreimbursed health care costs; pre-trial services for criminal defendants; housing assistance for low-income individuals; direct assistance to low-wage workers and their families; and a small amount dedicated to the administrative costs associated with calculating and collecting the fee. As a matter of public policy, this fee seeks to recover some of the costs imposed on the public by low-wages. This, combined with progressive revenue sources such as the targeted corporate head tax, would improve the financial condition of the county while emphasizing the need for high-quality jobs in the most distressed communities.

Candidates for Cook County Board (1st District district)