Steven R. Wolfe
Democratic candidate for Cook County Board (3rd 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.
It is critical we identify the forces behind Cook County's budget shortfall trends.
Despite declines in property values, property taxes are not going down and it seems that frequently there's a new proposal for sales tax increases. This is due mainly to government spending increases. As a result of this untenable condition, along with other factors, Cook County is suffering the highest population loss in the country. What's worse, we're losing our well-educated, highly-paid neighbors.
This is a vicious cycle whose root cause lies in politics. Not finance. Nonetheless, I would promote selling some of the 19 million square feet in real estate property owned/leased by the county to reduce operating costs and gain an infusion of cash.
I would aggressively push for better investor relations, particularly in pursuit of healthy revenue bonds; and "Green Bonds," which are more attractive to investors because they are tax exempt and attractive to residents because they make use of underutilized space/property while contributing to a more sustainable environment.
I would also consider selling private advertising opportunities on and inside County government facilities to increase our return on assets.
Lastly, Illinois has the highest tollway usage rates in the country and the vast majority of tollway revenues are generated from roads feeding into Cook County and the City of Chicago. I would pursue a cut of Illinois tollway receipts for County government in order to offset our transportation infrastructure and maintenance costs.
If faced in budget debates with cutting the county's payroll or raising taxes, which one will you choose, and why? Please be decisive.
I will choose cutting payroll, but not cutting jobs. If our budget woes were rooted in financial challenges I would certainly choose to cut payroll and raise taxes as well as several other revenue generating strategies. However, our budget problems are political and they require, for the most part, political solutions.
Do you favor or oppose privatization of county services and downsizing of the county's workforce?
The private contractor model skirts accountability, invites corruption and undermines workplace morale. I understand privatization is necessary for projects requiring very special skills and expertise, but as a rule privatization is not the way to go. Make no mistake, I'm opposed to the arbitrary salary increases for county government employees. I would certainly support cutting government payroll, in fact I recommend it, but I do not support cutting government jobs.
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?
Financial stability is achieved by first controlling (or eliminating) variable costs and driving down fixed costs wherever possible. I do not support proposals to cut budgets for the State's Attorney's and Public Defender's Offices because these are costs that we can more easily predict and control. Making cuts to these offices might increase pre-trial detainees and criminal recidivism, the cost of which are much more volatile.
Here's how we stabilize our public safety finances: limit the scope of County police patrol to the county's unincorporated areas and focus on activities for which the Sheriff's Department is best suited, including fugitive apprehension, enforcing evictions and levies, securing courthouses, securing and operating the 9,000-plus detainee population of the Cook County Jail, transporting prisoners and overseeing offender rehabilitation programs.
These services are not insignificant and if the County focused on them, they would provide significant assistance and relief to strained municipal police departments. This proposal may require some cuts in the County's policing budget, which I would support.
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?
It's estimated that 90% of Cook County's jail population are pretrial detainees, who are detained for an average 25 days before their case is dismissed. We need more crime lab staff, and field testing labs that conduct on-the-spot analyses. One of the key factors contributing to delays is that substance and DNA testing takes way too long. Another key factor contributing to long pretrial detentions is the absence of the arresting officers from court. We need enforceable mandates that ensure police officers are in court when necessary. Lastly, Cook County must permit home arrest for non-violent offenders.
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.
Cook County is fraught with poorly-run and even failed municipalities that are incapable of offering basic municipal services, much less taking on additional county services. I would only support contracting with municipalities after establishing a rigorous vetting process for assessing municipalities' fitness to provide these services. Also, I would only consider such contracting for services County government is not adept at providing, such as policing. Furthermore, any contracts which are established need to be regularly assessed to ensure that they meet performance goals. Specifically, I would oppose any efforts to privatize or contract other governments to take over Cook County's healthcare 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?
Unincorporated areas of the county are important because they provide flexibility for future use of lands and properties owned by the County. For this purpose, I believe we should maintain a certain level of UA's but also design in-depth plans that ensure we are deriving maximum value from them. Services provided to the the 2.4% of Cook County's population living in UA's is so small the financial impact is immaterial.
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?
I am not a big proponent of limiting the fields of work that lawmakers can pursue in private business, but elected officials MUST NOT be allowed to practice in tax appeal services. They are using their influence to rig a system against poor people and it must stop now. I would certainly support an umbrella office that combines assessment functions and reduces the layers of government under which assessors have successfully hidden fraud for years.
For incumbents: During your current term, on what proposed ordinances have you been the primary sponsor? For challengers: What proposed ordinances would you introduce?
I would propose an ordinance that empowers the Office of the Independent Inspector General to investigate, bring charges and make binding decisions on punishment of fraud and corruption throughout County government. I would propose mandates for higher and more fair requirements for minority contractors; currently minorities contractors hold less than 1% of County Health System contracts. I would also propose an ordinance that caps pretrial detention to a duration that is reasonable and humane, perhaps providing for assurances that police officers show in court for trials or in their absence, provisions for releasing unconvicted, non violent detainees are offered. Lastly, I would propose a monthly billing and payment cycle for Cook County property taxes. The median annual property tax payment for Cook County homeowners is approximately $4300. On our current semi-annual payment schedule that comes to two installments of $2150. This payment amount can be a real strain on family budgets. I acknowledge that the second installment is not always readily clear, therefore the monthly payments may require adjustments throughout the year. But I'd rather place the burden of budgeting on the County and not the taxpayer.