CHICAGO TRIBUNE – JUNE 24, 2021 | By Alice Yin
A proposed resolution to temporarily hand Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office more control of $1 billion in anticipated federal aid was sent to a committee Thursday for fine-tuning after commissioners raised fears of being cut out of how the stimulus funds would be spent.
Under the latest round of federal coronavirus recovery funding, Cook County was awarded the package, half of which has arrived in coffers already, to be used by the end of 2024 for public health, economic growth, infrastructure, revenue loss and more. Preckwinkle’s legislation would give her budget director latitude to move any American Rescue Plan Act funds under $1 million; beyond that, the director would need approval from Preckwinkle’s chief financial officer, according to the language, which gives a deadline of Dec. 31 for the enhanced powers.
Though there was scant objection to moving the legislation to the Finance Committee during Thursday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, some board members earlier requested Preckwinkle’s staff to pause a direct approval vote out of concern that the language sidesteps their authority, Commissioner Larry Suffredin said. Her team agreed, he said, though Preckwinkle told reporters Thursday the resolution as written does not bypass the county board’s approval.
“Just a second. That’s not true,” Preckwinkle said in a call with reporters when asked about the commissioners’ issues. “What will happen is that the ways in which we allocate the resources into specific budgets will be approved by the Board of Commissioners. This is not an end-around our Board of Commissioners.”
But some commissioners saw it differently. Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, and Commissioner Bridget Degnen, a Chicago Democrat, said they approached Preckwinkle’s staff earlier this week seeking to lower the $1 million ceiling and require county board approval for anything above that. Degnen said she is calling for a $500,000 threshold.
“I went last night with Degnen to them and said, ‘This isn’t ready for prime time yet. And why do you want to have a battle today over language that we can work out?’” Suffredin said.
But because Preckwinkle’s team acquiesced to delaying a direct vote, he added, “We’re all fundamentally in a spot where we’ll work out this language. … This resolution I would say is not intentionally misleading, but it’s not artfully drafted.”
Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Republican from Palos Park, is more suspicious. He said he was alarmed that Preckwinkle’s administration would ask commissioners to sign away their authority without concrete details on where the money is going.
Preckwinkle’s office did give a wide-ranging slideshow during Thursday’s board meeting on their priorities for the $1 billion, which Morrison said was a “nice, pretty, multicolored presentation, but there’s nothing to it.”
“We’re getting basically ($1 billion), of which they want to be able to have carte blanche up to a million… and then an undetermined and basically unending amount of money if people sign off on it,” Morrison said. “That’s just a bridge way too far.”
Morrison and Degnen were the two commissioners who repeatedly voted “no” on a similar resolution extending Preckwinkle’s budget director’s powers to move stimulus funds from April 2020 for a year after the passage of the federal CARES Act.
“I have long held that the way that our governance in Cook County is gives the board authority over spending as well,” Degnen said. “It’s important that we have the checks and balances.”
Preckwinkle said the goal of the resolution was to address immediate needs such as hiring employees over the next several months to monitor ARPA expenditures, but the bulk of the money would be folded into the 2022 fiscal year budget that requires the county board’s approval.
Her staffers’ presentation on Thursday outlined goals for the money that prioritized social services they said would most benefit “marginalized and Black and brown communities,” though no exact numbers or specific programs were mentioned. The briefing also called for at least four months of “stakeholder engagement” and an executive leadership council that would contain members of the Office of the President, who would help guide decisions on the $1 billion.
“We have our work cut out for us, undoubtedly, but I’m confident that we’ll be putting forward a thoughtful and comprehensive plan with some important and transformative ideas,” Preckwinkle said.