Democratic candidate for Cook County Board (12th District district)
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.
Just as in the private sector, Cook County government needs to be more nimble and efficient in fulfilling its wide-ranging role and providing necessary services.
One path toward that goal is continued smart consolidation and re-tasking or elimination of duplicative personnel. Exemplary of my commitment to this issue, I was able to put forward and pass a binding referendum to consolidate the Offices of the Recorder of Deeds and the County Clerk by 2020 that allowed voters to directly determine the size of their county government. Two-thirds of voters approved the consolidation. The result was the first elimination of a county office in 45 years and is projected to save millions of taxpayer dollars every year.
As the Chairman of the Information Technology and Innovation Committee, several years ago, I proposed a consolidation of many of the IT services which currently exist in separate silos under the various elected County officials. Given the significant overlap of functions and services provided by each of the various IT departments, such a move is a prime target for reconfiguration.
While I was initially unable to gain traction for the initiative, current fiscal conditions are serving to build support for the concept. Another significant reconfiguration to be revisited is a previous proposal of then-Commissioner Mike Quigley, namely the creation of an Office of Tax Administration. I elaborate more on this issue in my answer to Question 8. From a purely fiscal standpoint, we have refinanced a number of our outstanding debt obligations to more favorable terms resulting in significant savings.
These savings have further allowed us to overpay some of our pension obligations resulting in Cook County being the only major governmental unit in the State with stable ratings from every bond agency.
If faced in budget debates with cutting the county's payroll or raising taxes, which one will you choose, and why? Please be decisive.
Each and every fiscal year brings its own set of challenges that vary based on a number of factors. As such, it would be disingenuous to say that I would never vote for a tax increase as it depends on what tax, the rate, the impact, the implementation and the fiscal forecasting and data supporting such a proposal. That said, as evidenced by my overall record, I've been consistently inclined to favor efficiencies and savings over raising taxes. Case in point, my recent staunch opposition to the sweetened beverage tax was not a reflection on my belief in the problems and costs associated with obesity-related diseases, which are clearly real, but in my belief that revenues were not dedicated to health costs and that the implementation structure was going drive consumer traffic elsewhere and result in far lower revenues than predicted, all while having a deleterious impact on countless local businesses. As importantly, it was necessary to break the reliance of answering every budget crisis with new revenue creation. While the resulting budget involved approximately 370 layoffs, it is worth noting that not one healthcare provider, state's attorney or public defender was impacted. Rather, the reduced revenue caused various offices to look at middle-management positions and find ways to innovate in order to perform the functions necessary from that office. At the end of the day, we did what many of the tax proponents said couldn't be done, namely passed a responsible budget without the predicted $200 million in additional taxpayer dollars. There is another important consideration in government's need to be reluctant in the implementation of any new taxes. Area residents and businesses have been hit with so many taxes from all levels of governments that many are overwhelmed. It is also impossible for anybody to responsibly plan a budget with the ever-present uncertainty of higher or new taxes. To assist with this issue, I introduced and passed the Taxpayers' Predictability Amendment during the FY2016 budget that freezes the County Sales Taxes and Aggregate Property Tax Levy for FY2017, FY2018 and FY2019. Also, any future increase in the Sales Tax or Property Tax above the aggregate levy will first require the Bureau of Finance to provide the Board with a 36-month fiscal evaluation of revenues and expenses prior to considering such increase and the aggregate levy will not be increased for 36 months following an increase in either tax without first receiving and considering the Bureau of Finance's fiscal forecast.
Do you favor or oppose privatization of county services and downsizing of the county's workforce?
Any good organization must operate not by simply downsizing but rather by right-sizing so that depending upon the complexity and nature of the service or function, there exists a proper allocation of personnel and resources to execute the task. Cook County is no different. The time has come and gone where services are delivered in a certain manner because 'that's how it has always been done'. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and our need to maintain fiscal stability creates just such a necessity. While privatization is often held out as a panacea for all government ills, recent experiences have shown that to not be a steadfast rule. The recent request by the Clerk of the Court for a delay in compliance with e-filing requirements has been predicated in part on issues with the outside vendor. While portions of this work required specialized personnel, at a cost of millions of dollars, many of the functions could likely have been performed by our in-house personnel at less cost to taxpayers. The reality is that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the privatization issue; each situation needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis with a determination made as to the fiscal and functional impact of any such decision. It is crucial however that the Board be vigilant in its oversight of any services provided by outside vendors to ensure that any privatization continues to be cost-effective.
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?
Since early on in my tenure on the Board, I've been a vocal proponent of reforming our bond system from a cash bond system to an evidence-based system.
Bond is supposed to be measured against an individual being a flight risk or risk to society not on their ability to pay. That notwithstanding, our over-reliance on cash bonds has meant that we needlessly incarcerate individuals, the overwhelming majority of whom are minorities, at a cost of millions of dollars annually, simply because they are poor.
Nationally, 60% of inmates in local jails are individuals awaiting trial but in Cook County, pre-trial detainees account for a staggering 90% of the people housed in the jail. And of that number, 70% are being held pursuant to non-violent charges. Recent changes that have been implementing are resulting in the issuance of a far greater number of non-cash bonds where appropriate for non-violent detainees. This has allowed us to reduce the jail population to record lows and to decommission and demolish three divisions of the jail by the end of 2018, which is projected to save $188 million in needed capital.
Cost-containment issues regarding to office of the Clerk of the Court have long been known to exist but have often been difficult to dissect. Issues like the latest delay in the implementation of the long-promised e-filing system not only hinder the efficient administration of justice but do so at a significant cost to taxpayers.
Fortunately, I have seen an increased proactive scrutiny of the office by the Board, one that is forcing the Office of the Clerk to be held to a more accountable standard. While progress is being made, continued scrutiny and possibly a regular desk audit of the office to continue to indentify and weed out unnecessary (and often patronage-driven) positions further leading to continued efficiencies in the office.
As the Chairman of the Information Technology and Innovation Committee, I have been overseeing regular meetings of all stakeholders in the County's soon-to-be fully implemented Integrated Criminal Justice System, a technological advancement that will finally take most courtroom functions involving the Judges, Sheriffs, States Attorneys and Public Defenders from carbon paper to computer screens greatly optimizing court system functions thereby making the system more efficient and cost-effective.
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?
Dispensation of justice should not just be fair but also timely. While it falls within the purview of the State's Attorney's office as how best to decide to proceed in each specific case, it is in the best interest of all stakeholders to make a prompt decision as to which cases will be dropped, pled out or taken forward. State law dictates the amount of time in which the State's Attorney's has to make an arraignment determination.
The sooner this determination is made, the more efficient the case flow will be. Many jurisdictions provide for a shorter timeframe than does Illinois and this is an issue that needs further attention. Another issue that can have a significant impact on unclogging our court system is to free up the already-strained resources of state's attorneys and public defenders is for greater use of ticket-issuance for low-level marijuana possession and ultimately for legalization of recreational use by adults.
Approximately 7 years ago, I led the call for Chicago to pass decriminalization legislation. While it was ultimately done, police officers are still given the discretion as to whether to write a ticket or make an arrest. In those cases in which charges are pressed, over 80% are ultimately dismissed resulting in nothing more than wasted court resources and leaving countless thousands of individuals with an unnecessary arrest record that can impact their ability to get anything from a job to an apartment to a student loan. Taking the thousands of these types of cases out of the judicial pipeline will have a marked impact on the efficacy of our court system. With respect to pre-trial release measures, in Washington D.C. and New York City, 80% and 70% of felony pretrial defendants were released on some form of personal recognizance, respectively.
Until recently, the personal recognizance numbers in Cook County were a staggeringly low 10%. Yet the former jurisdictions still have comparable court appearance rates and re-arrest rates. Furthermore, virtually every alternative (electronic monitoring, day reporting, drug and mental health counseling) costs taxpayers less than to incarcerate these individuals, the vast preponderance of whom are being held on non-violent offenders.
Compounding the problem is that incarcerating these individuals can often times jeopardize their job, living arrangements or family responsibilities, setting the stage for a never-ending cycle. As we have recognized the concurrent social and fiscal gains to be realized from shifting away from reliance on a cash bond system, we must realize the similar progress to be gained from increased utilization of alternatives to incarceration for those individuals for whom a simple I-bond is not sufficient.
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.
Properly allocating resources for the efficient handling of services is a win/win situation for all public bodies involved. Shortly after being elected, I was named to the City/County 'Gang of Six', charged with finding savings that could be realized through collaboration of services and purchases.
To date, our efforts have yielded savings of more than $70 million, proving that collaboration saves dollars and makes sense. The County highway department is currently responsible for maintaining dozens of isolated stretches of highway in unincorporated Cook County and various municipalities. This results in a situation where when it snows, County highway trucks drop their plows for a mile and clear the County portion of the road, lift them and then proceed to the next County-maintained stretch, etc. Handing over maintenance responsibilities for these disconnected parcels to municipalities via intergovernmental agreements would save money during all seasons.
The forest preserve could also likely realize savings and the ability to reallocate resources by transferring most law enforcement to the Sheriff's office which by sheer scale and coverage throughout the County is poised to more effectively handle these duties. With respect to other county-wide offices, the issue is more of one of how to make county services more easily accessible to residents and businesses.
By further modernizing the provision of these services through e-accessibility, we can stabilize or reduce the personnel needed for their delivery.
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?
As illustrated in a recent Civic Federation report, for the cost of services provided, the unincorporated areas are a drain on our finances, yet the county is mandated by the state to serve those areas. The most obvious means to address this issue is to pursue an increased pace of annexation thereby reducing the scattered footprint of unincorporated areas within the county. All of us pay for services we may never need such as fire protection, a court system, etc. but in order to fairly continue to provide these services to individuals in unincorporated areas, it would also be prudent for the county to fully evaluate the true costs, including inherent overhead costs, of providing county services and impose an appropriate fee that recoups those costs.
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?
In theory, property assessment should ensure that values fluctuate in accordance with market conditions. In reality, a statistically impossible number of parcels repeatedly received identical assessed valuations.
This problem is heightened by findings that properties in poor, minority communities are taxed at a higher rate than those in affluent white communities. At this juncture, it is prudent to await the results of a pending study of the county's assessment process. Notwithstanding the conclusions of that study, the creation of an oversight panel is warranted to monitor the implementation of any changes to the system as well as to increase transparency of ongoing operations in the office of the Assessor. Congressman Quigley and I have previously discussed the issue of creating an Office of Tax Administration on multiple occasions. Presently, one office determines property values, another sends out the tax bills, while a third figures out tax rates and maintains tax maps.
A consolidation of Assessor and Treasurer along with the property tax functions of the Clerk's office would inherently be more cost-effective while concurrently being more user-friendly to the general public by having a single office to deal with for property tax issues. Although there are obvious political and logistic hurdles to overcome, given the overwhelming support for the Clerk/Recorder consolidation, our current political climate may provide an opportunity to again raise the concept.
For incumbents: During your current term, on what proposed ordinances have you been the primary sponsor? For challengers: What proposed ordinances would you introduce?
- To give the public access to county data, I passed the Open Data Act making Cook County one of the largest municipalities in the country to open up its data to the public. The legislation requires County officials to make its data openly available. There is now unprecedented access to information about County operations, and developers can create user-friendly applications to allow residents or businesses to better understand and interact with government.
- I drafted and passed the Cook County Taxation Predictability and Long-Term Fiscal Forecasting Amendment, freezing Cook County's property and sales tax rates until January 1, 2020. After that date, should the Board increase either the sales or property tax, a freeze of both taxes will be triggered prohibiting the County from raising either of those taxes again for the following three years.
- I drafted and passed legislation allowing Cook County voters the ability to eliminate the office of the Recorder of Deeds and merge its functions into the office of the County Clerk, a move that would increase efficiency and is predicted to save the County approximately $2 million dollars annually. Voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot referendum and the two offices will be merged by 2020.
- I sponsored legislation modernizing the County's antiquated parental leave policy. Now, new mothers and/or fathers will be allocated an amount of paid parental leave to focus on the needs of their families. This change in law will make for healthier families and happier employees.
- To help address the violence that has gripped our city and county, I created the Cook County Violence Prevention, Intervention and Reduction Advisory Committee and identified initial grant funding sources through other budget savings. To date, numerous grants have been awarded to groups throughout the county for various violence prevention and related programs throughout the county.
- I drafted and passed a non-binding referendum allowing Cook County voters to weigh in on the question of legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana use by adults 21 and over. The question will appear on the March 20, 2018 Primary Election ballot.
- Animals raised in puppy mills are subjected to inhumane conditions and often have health issues that result in heartbreak and expensive medical bills for their owners. To address this issue, I drafted and passed an ordinance making Cook County the largest jurisdiction in the country to ban the retail sale of puppy mill dogs, cats & rabbits.
- People accused of violent crimes often have a history of violence towards animals. To address this issue, I wrote and sponsored an ordinance creating the Cook County Animal Abuser Registry, a first for Illinois, preventing convicted animal abusers from obtaining animals from animal stores, shelters and pet sellers. Under the oversight of the Sheriff's office, the registry prevents convicted animal abusers from buying or adopting a companion animal for 15 years after being convicted of an animal abuse crime, and life following a subsequent conviction, a program which will be administered by the Sheriff.