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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recently stopped by the Defender as a part of a tour with local press. She shared her forecast on the preliminary budget, future plans for development and her focus for the county.

With the release of the county’s preliminary budget forecast, Preckwinkle said there is an $82 million dollar gap, which is actually the smallest gap in recent history.

The county has closed that gap through lay offs and vacant positions. But Preckwinkle cautions, “The easy things have been done over the last 7 years; it will get harder to close the gap because the obvious things have already been done. Deeper cuts will be difficult….The workforce is 13 percent smaller than it was when I came in…it will be harder to make cuts without impacting services.”

The county has made “structural changes” such as eliminating vacant positions and reorganizing.

And the rescinding of the highly debated tax on sweetened beverages earlier this fiscal year hurt the budget. “It left a hole in our budget for subsequent years…it was revenue we anticipated.” This hole also impacts bond ratings and the interest rates on loans.

One of the new projects Preckwinkle mentioned was the development of the old Cook County Hospital building that has been idle since 2002. Now, a deal has been made with a group of developers who will create a short- and long-term hotel on the grounds that will also provide office space. The land will be leased to the developers in a long-term lease.

The county is also creating an ambulatory care center, which will open in the fall. It is south and west of Stroger Hospital and will be connected through walkways. It will replace the Fauntus Clinic, which is in a space that hasn’t been kept up and wasn’t converted well, according to Preckwinkle.

She says she’s addressed two of her major areas of concern when she took office; one was public health.

“330,000 people have health insurance who didn’t have it before,” thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the fact that Illinois chose to adopt the plan. Preckwinkle reiterated that there are “whole sectors of [people in jobs] where you can work 40 hours and not get health insurance…with Medicaid expansion, people who make minimum wage or less can get health insurance….one of my goals was to ensure sustainability of health.”

The other goal centered around public safety. With criminal justice reform, fewer people charged with non-violent crimes are awaiting trial behind bars. More people are released on recognizance when they are not deemed a threat to society. The former laws were “unfair to the poor,” according to Preckwinkle and disproportionately impacted Black and Brown citizens.

One of the main issues Preckwinkle will focus on in her third term as board president (she is unopposed in the November run off) is development of the South Suburban community.

“We are getting the actors together to build capacity and opportunity…gather information, getting stake holders together to figure out where we need to go,” she shared with the Defender.

Several small towns and villages in the South Suburbs of Cook County don’t have “the resources to develop plans; how can we help work with them to build up the region?”

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