Editorial: Cook County must maintain its budget discipline in allocating federal relief funds
There is no disputing that much has been done in Cook County government in recent years to improve the management of spending and revenues and to professionalize the entire budgeting process.
But will that be enough to protect against the inherent temptations that will come with $1 billion in federal assistance over the next three years?
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her financial team assure us that they are keeping their eye on the federal-assistance ball so that when $333 million a year in American Rescue Plan Act money they're scheduling goes away three years from now, the county will not be left floundering to find a way to replace it or lose programs people will have come to rely on. The importance of that scrutiny cannot be overstated.
It is not in the nature of government -- nor perhaps in the nature of people or businesses or agencies, either, for that matter -- to cut back on spending it has become accustomed to. Cook County's "Roadmap to Recovery," incorporated into the budget presentation Preckwinkle made to the County Board Thursday takes pains to emphasize that ARPA funding will be allocated to help restore pandemic-related losses recipients suffered or to create programs that can sustain themselves beyond the scope of the federal aid. But it also includes worrisome generalities such as "initiatives that promote access to quality food and nutrition," "workforce development program expansions," "expansion of violence prevention programs and supports for system-involved youth and young adults" and much more.
All these are commendable goals, to be sure. But they also require funding support. If ARPA funds are able to strengthen their foundations and sustainability, wonderful. But if in three years, we're seeing agencies pleading that their services will go away without tax increases or cuts in other county services, that will be not so wonderful.
County finance officials told our editorial board Thursday that they're confident that for any ongoing programs established through ARPA funding, the impact of an economic rebound will provide sufficient resources to sustain them. That's a high level of optimism, and we hope they're right.
In the meantime, we must also emphasize that, while county budgeters are relying on experience and observation in building their predictions, a hope is not a plan. Thanks largely to the Affordable Care Act, a small sales tax increase last year and conscientious budget management overall, the county has managed to work its way into relatively stable financial condition -- including a schedule to have pensions fully funded by 2046.
A billion dollars in new money is a lot of temptation for government expansion. Keeping the spending on track and avoiding creation of well-meaning but unsustainable new programs is going to take at least as much attention and discipline as we've seen to this point.