CHICAGO — Cook County, Ill., is facing a $169 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, county board President Toni Preckwinkle warned.
The nation's second most-populous county, home to Chicago, also expects to end the current 2014 fiscal year with an $86 million deficit if it takes no action, Preckwinkle said at a speech in downtown Chicago Thursday afternoon. Most of that is due to a shortfall in its massive health care system.
But Preckwinkle noted in the speech that she's brought down the county's structural deficit by more than $300 million since she took office in 2011.
"Over the last four years, we've made some strategic structural changes to make sure that [personnel] costs are appropriate," she said. "Today we have a smaller, stronger government than we did four years ago."
The county's fiscal year begins Dec. 1.
Like the city and Illinois, Cook faces a serious unfunded pension obligation that ratings analysts have warned could lead to future downgrades.
The county crafted a plan to address the shortfall last month, and presented it to state lawmakers in the final days of the spring legislative session. It failed to pass the House. Preckwinkle said Thursday that she expects the General Assembly will hold a special session in January where the measure can be addressed again.
The county's main pension fund is less than 60% funded and the forest preserve district fund is just over 60% funded. Like Chicago, the county needs the state to approve changes to its pension systems.
Cook expects to spend $2.96 billion in its general fund in fiscal 2015. It expects to bring in $2.79 billion. The shortfall is due to increased spending on overtime and health benefit and other costs, according to preliminary budget documents. An increase of $22.2 million in debt-service payments will mean less property tax in the general fund.
"We have seen decreases, or slower than expected growth, in revenue sources that depend on economic conditions, namely the revenue generated by the sales tax and the sale or transfer of property," Preckwinkle said. Most of the increases are due to rising personnel costs, which take up 80% of the county's roughly $3 billion annual budget.
Nearly a third of the county's budget goes to fund its public health care system. Last year Cook won a federal waiver that allowed it to participate in the new federal health care a year early. That's expected to bring in $334 million more in revenues in 2015, according the county. But it will also spend $384 million more due to higher enrolment and costs associated with CountyCare, the expanded federal program.
In 2014, the health fund spent $244 million more than was originally projected, marking a 25% increase. Preckwinkle blamed a shortfall in the federal government reimbursements and higher than expected enrollment.
"As one of the first to implement the ACA, we knew this would be a huge undertaking," Preckwinkle said. "This only underscores the importance of a disciplined budget process."