Running a city or county in these tough economic times is not an easy task. Just ask Cook County, Ill., Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Her first days on the job in December 2010 came with a big surprise: a previously undisclosed $487 million budget deficit. But Preckwinkle has never been one to back down from a challenge. By finding new revenue sources and cutting agency budgets by an average of 16 percent, she closed that budget gap in a matter of days, and then set out to fix the chronically cash-strapped county for good.
Preckwinkle, who started her career as a history teacher, closed that deficit while making good on a campaign promise to roll back a widely unpopular sales tax hike implemented by her predecessor. That reduced the burden for residents previously saddled with the highest combined sales tax rate of any major U.S. city.
Using a performance management system, Preckwinkle also spearheaded efforts to cut costs and rein in inefficiencies. The initiative has paid off, with county residents receiving property assessment bills early for the first time since 1978. “In just one year on the job, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has made county government practically unrecognizable,” a Chicago Sun-Times editorial gushed.
Preckwinkle is known for being outspoken, but her 19 years as a city alderman taught her that a good leader must bring everybody to the table. So before Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office last year, Preckwinkle met with him. The two agreed it didn’t make sense to share a space -- both governments are housed in the same downtown Chicago building -- and not work together. They have since merged workforce training, revenue collection and purchasing operations, collectively saving $33 million in the first year.
Today, Cook County is clearly on a good path, and that’s largely thanks to Preckwinkle. Dick Simpson, a former city alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that’s possible because Preckwinkle has brought Cook County’s antiquated -- and at times corrupt -- government into the 21st century. “Parts of it had a history of being fairly dysfunctional,” he says. “It hadn’t been modernized in any meaningful way.”
Preckwinkle is modest about her progress. Almost two years after taking over the nation’s second most populous county, she says there’s still a lot to do. “We’ve made a good start, but have a long way to go,” she says. “I don’t feel like my job is done, in any respect.”