Cook County began its 2018 budget hearings facing a $200 million budget hole. Meanwhile, the City of Chicago is staring down the tunnel towards major pension payments and Cook County’s own pensions aren’t on steady ground. In 2011, newly elected Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a joint committee to explore ways the two jurisdictions might work together. Made up of commissioners, aldermen, and heavy-hitting department heads, the committee issued 19 recommendations initially and two follow-up reports. Then it went dark. If the county and city are looking for creative ways to save, perhaps it’s time, a whole election later, to start that discussion up again.
In 2013, the Joint Committee on City-County Collaboration announced it had achieved $70.9 million in savings and revenue for the city and county. To do so, the city and county had consolidated geographic information system support systems, combined forces in cigarette tax enforcement, and teamed up on workforce development under the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership, among other projects. If accurate, the improvements to savings and revenue had exceeded the committee’s expectations for the first three years. However, the committee still was actively working on the recommendations, including creating a regional healthcare plan and further integrating tax collection and enforcement. The 2013 report stated, “Dozens of City and County employees have contributed to the City-County Collaboration efforts since the partnership was launched, and new opportunities continue to emerge.”
Unfortunately, the committee itself was disbanded, and while some officials continued to work toward creating more collaboration, for example in the area of procurement, including a government procurement compliance forum and a procurement reform task force, the wide-ranged systemic effort to identify and promote efficiencies ended. President Preckwinkle’s Press Secretary Frank Shuftan noted, “Our executive staff maintains open lines of communication with their colleagues at the city, so the door for further conversation around additional cooperative efforts is always open.” However, a new official joint committee in 2018 could renew energy, ensure that the collaborative programs that were put in place have continued, look back at recommendations that were left on the table, and find additional opportunities to collaborate between the city, county, and even other sister agencies.
Some of the ideas from 2011 that were cancelled or partially pursued include:
Combining 311 systems. Moving Cook County’s information service system to the city’s 311 system could have saved the county an estimated $100,000 a year. The 2012 report stated that “maintaining separate operations for the time being would make the most sense both fiscally and in terms of maintaining service levels at the City and County.” In its budget overview, the city said it is actively working on new enhancements to its 311 system. It might be time for the county to reconsider exploring an intergovernmental agreement that would allow the county to work through the city’s 311 service.
Consolidating city and county election services under the Cook County Clerk. In response to questions during the Chicago Board of Election’s 2018 budget hearing from Alderman Scott Waguespack and Alderman John Arena, Executive Director Lance Gough reported that the county clerk and the board are, in fact, sharing some equipment and software. Gough did not endorse full consolidation, but said were it to happen over the long run, it would be best if it was done under a newly formed county and city commission rather than under the county’s system due to concerns that the county system is overseen by elected officials. Consolidating the offices would also require a legislative change in Springfield, an extra, but not unsurmountable step if the political will is there.
The report noted some additional areas for consideration and study the committee was not able to explore at the time. For example, the 2018 proposed budget for the city gives the Department of Animal Care and Control (ACC) $6.5 million, while the county’s proposes $5.9 million for its Department of Animal and Rabies Control (ARC). According to Shuftan, the two animal control units have “far different missions” and thus the County does not currently see any efficiencies to be gained by a formal consolidation. A spokeswoman for the City also noted that they hadn’t felt the move would result in any real savings. However, even if the jurisdictions are not ready to combine, there are areas where cooperation could result in better service and efficiencies. For example, while the county sells rabies certificates, Chicago and other municipalities issue their own separate license for pets. At City Council budget hearings, City Clerk Anna Valencia discussed a partnership she is developing with the county to increase awareness of the rabies certificate and license requirements. In general, there could be more potential for Cook, Chicago, and other municipal animal control operations to coordinate on licenses, purchasing, events, and community engagement materials, bringing efficiencies and improved quality to an important public service.
Annexing unincorporated areas
Another idea that has been percolating in Cook County for years, but never fulfilled, is the annexation of all unincorporated areas into nearby or surrounding municipalities, such as the City of Chicago. In 2016, the Civic Federation reported that unincorporated townships cost Cook County taxpayers $18.9 million annually. Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer recently noted the county only is able to recover about half the money it spends on unincorporated areas. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart offered to provide the board a list of the unincorporated areas that he believes are the most inefficient.
Charging more for county services to unincorporated townships, more than 20 in the county, might help eliminate some of this subsidy. However, as recommended by a 2012 task force that included representatives from some unincorporated townships, the Civic Federation, county commissioners, the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Commission, and others, “the long-term goal should be elimination of all unincorporated land such that every resident of Cook County is also a resident of a municipality.”
Currently, the County cannot compel the annexation of unincorporated areas. According to Shuftan, the President’s office has, “put in place or are preparing for operational changes – such as improving housing inspections and focusing on road and transportation projects in unincorporated areas – to make such incorporations more attractive.” The Civic Federation’s 2016 report calls on commissioners, local officials, and the Illinois General Assembly to go a step beyond such efforts and establish a requirement that full annexation take place by an inked deadline.
Annexing special districts
While Cook County officials currently are laser-focused on finding savings, the intense debate over the county’s services creates an opportunity for commissioners to revisit the structure of the county as a whole. Back in 2003, then-Commissioner Mike Quigley suggested the county’s four mosquito abatement districts be absorbed by the county to enable better communication and coordination and potentially find efficiencies in the operation of the districts. Despite the issue resurfacing a number of times in the decade or more since Quigley’s report, these independent taxing districts still exist, as do a number of other special districts. According to a 2017 Civic Federation report, Cook County has 21 independent sanitary districts and 33 fire protection districts. Responsibly consolidating those districts long has been a legislative priority for both the Civic Federation and the BGA. Maybe it’s time the Cook County Board made it their priority as well.
As a rule, government always should be looking for inefficiencies in its own ranks. This year, this need is particularly vital for Cook County. As part of the 2018 budget hearings, commissioners and agency heads have suggested staffing cuts, consolidation of administrative services like human resources, and closing some branch courthouses. Cuts need to be balanced against service quality and, therefore, should be thoughtfully and carefully considered. For example, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli suggested her clients would be able to adjust if certain branch courts were closed, but noted their ability to access court needs to be considered at the front end, along with the millions that could be saved by closing the court buildings.
Looking for internal efficiencies is difficult, in part, because most agencies are led by elected officials and any loss of resources represents a loss of power for them. Still, there is no better time than the present to identify ways agencies and governments can collaborate, if not by joining offices, then on procurement, capital, and administrative costs. Commissioners tussled all summer, and, in the end, most cited their constituents’ concerns when they repealed the soda tax, but now the hard work to deliver responsible, efficient government truly begins.