County board discusses CIP, salaries, and levy reduction
image courtesy of Cook County

County board discusses CIP, salaries, and levy reduction

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) was once again a top agenda item for the Cook County Board of Commissioners at their November meetings. The commissioners met for regular meetings on November 14 and 28.

While a decision from the state on whether the bonding application has been approved won’t be made until the end of the legislative session in May, in an interview with WTIP, Cook County Administrator James Joerke was adamant that the elements of the CIP that do not depend on bonding should stay on-track. He said, “The deferred maintenance projects, we’ve got those sorted out by year, and so we know what we need to do and when we need to do it.” He also mentioned that if the state does not approve this initial bonding application, the county would have an opportunity to adjust the request and resubmit during the next round of applications.

The county is currently accepting proposals for both architectural services for the judicial center project, and construction management services for the deferred maintenance projects. According to Joerke, if the county does not receive strong bids, they have the option to make changes to the bid request and continue to invite proposals. 

Beyond the CIP, the Board of Commissioners also considered several budget-related topics. One agenda item that prompted a lengthy back-and-forth between the commissioners during the meeting on Nov. 28 was a request from Public Health and Human Services for $5,000 and approval to enter a joint-powers agreement with regional counties to address medical transportation needs for Cook County residents. The agreement would mean partnering with neighboring counties to change how residents who qualify for Medical Assistance are able to access financial support for non-emergency medical transportation costs by using the company MTM. The conversation included moments of tension as the commissioners attempted to identify the way the agreement would impact the county. Ultimately, the commissioners voted unanimously to enter into the agreement. 

Another agenda item that spurred discussion was the topic of salaries, both the question of approving a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for all county employees, and a proposed pay raise for the commissioners themselves. While the commissioners all agreed on and voted to approve the COLA of 3.5% for Cook County employees, there was disagreement about the change in pay for the commissioners. The issue remained open for further discussion at future meetings, with the conversation centering around wanting to use county funds responsibility, while also maintaining a competitive pay rate for commissioners. The commissioners passed the proposed COLA, but have yet to make a decision on the proposed $3,600 annual increase for 2024. In 2022 the board approved a $3,600 pay increase for the 2023 year.

Joerke said, “Obviously the commissioners are in an awkward place because they are making a decision about their own pay, and public funds are used to support those pay changes.” Joerke commented on the idea of competitive salary saying “If people have to take a vow of poverty to be public servants, they probably are not going to do it.”

During the conversations related to the budget at the Nov. 28 meeting, Joerke and Cook County Auditor-Treasurer Brady Powers informed the Board of Commissioners that the proposed levy of 9% announced earlier this year has been adjusted- the new proposed levy is 6.54%. Joerke cited changes to the projected expenses from the Sheriff’s department and PHHS as the reason for the levy adjustment. Further changes to the levy rate are not expected. Joerke explained the newly adjusted levy to WTIP, saying “I expect that is what we will be asking the board to approve at its meeting on Dec. 12.”

Joerke also mentioned the Truth in Taxation meeting on November 30th at 6PM in the Commissioners Board Room, which is a public meeting regarding the county’s proposed budget and levy. Members of the public will have an opportunity to give feedback on those items. 

This meeting will be streamed through the county website for members of the public who are not able to attend. 

WTIP’s Kirsten Wisniewski spoke with Cook County Administrator James Joerke about the November Board of Commissioners meetings and the current status of the Capital Improvement Plan.