Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (D) appeared before the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Monday morning, answering a variety of questions posed by local business leaders on topics from taxes, health care and economic development to criminal justice and the annexation of unincorporated areas.
One of Preckwinkle’s major policy points has been cutting the 1 percent sales-tax hike added by her predecessor, Todd Stroger, in 2008, which she said saved County residents about $440 million—though while acknowledging that meant $440 million less in the budget, and saying there is little wiggle room for further cuts.
“We felt it was a big mistake to have the highest sales taxes in the country,” Preckwinkle said. “It was hard on our businesses, particularly businesses on the perimeter of the county… I think this is a boon to our businesses, and hopefully helpful to them.”
Other “business-friendly” steps that Preckwinkle said she intended to take included encouraging banks to lend to small businesses, redeveloping vacant city-owned land, expediting payments, providing incentives to small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses and bringing clarity to bureaucratic processes.
Preckwinkle was also vocal about the need for a “smarter” criminal justice system, reducing the number of non-violent offenders in Illinois prisons, in particular drug abusers and prostitutes; she stressed that drug abuse should be treated as a mental-health issue before a criminal one.
“If you don’t hear anything else I said today, you should remember that we have five percent of the world population [and] 25 percent of [those] who are in jail or prison,” the Board president said. “In my mind, that’s stupid and destructive.”
A topic of local interest is Preckwinkle’s campaign to eliminate unincorporated land like La Grange Highlands from the County, for which a $5 million matching fund for municipal improvements has been established to encourage local municipalities to annex the land.
“Basically, 5.2 million people subsidize the 100,000 people who live in unincorporated Cook, which has never seemed fair to me,” Preckwinkle said.
Asked about the recent drop in the state credit rating, Preckwinkle said Cook is “doing pretty well,” but would still be impacted. She blamed “decades of inattention and inaction, particularly on pension issues” in Springfield, and urged people not to blame public employees.
On gun control, the Board president said she would like to see a stricter firearm-registration program put in effect to target “straw purchasers” and make crime more traceable. She also voiced support for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, saying it was a matter of “what’s reasonable in a civilized society.”
Preckwinkle also was asked about health care; she emphasized that she wants to save money on emergency-room care by routing people through primary-care physicians, and said that a sustainable system is in everyone’s best interests: “We can only be healthy if everyone around us is healthy.”
One issue that Preckwinkle said that she plans to stay away from is trying to consolidate governmental bodies to combat inefficiency, explaining that she didn’t have the political capital in her first term. She also said she plans to run for re-election in 2014.
She was introduced by McCook mayor Jeff Tobolski, who praised her leadership and said that the Cook County economy was instrumental in landing a new contract that McCook just signed with Golden State Foods, who supply McDonald’s.
“They said, things are good economically here, in Cook County and in the Village of McCook as well,’ Tobolski said. “All that’s possible from the leadership that starts at the top.”