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Cook County Board president discusses inequality, opportunity in Chicago Heights

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle discussed how county investment in infrastructure, economic development, mental health and other initiatives have sought to address high taxes, inequality and other south suburban concerns during a town hall Thursday in Bloom Township.

Preckwinkle, 75, who is seeking her fourth and potentially final term as chief executive of one America’s largest county government, has arguably done more to help the Southland than any other individual over the past decade.

She told a crowd of about 150 residents in the cafeteria/auditorium of the new $40 million Chicago Heights Middle School about how she has worked to reduce violence and improve quality of life by addressing structural wealth inequality that has punished people here for decades.

“It turns out that regions in this country that have the least inequality are the most economically vibrant,” she said. “Unfortunately there’s a lot on inequality in Cook County. The part of the county that has struggled the most over the past several decades is the Southland. What we decided to do was up our investments in the Southland.”

Preckwinkle has been thoughtful, measured and strategic in her approach. She has enlisted talented teams of competent, efficient administrators to produce results. Challenges persist, but one shudders to imagine how much worse off the region might be without Preckwinkle’s relentless advocacy.

The best public servants do not necessarily make the best politicians. Preckwinkle learned the limits of her popularity when Lori Lightfoot crushed her by 250,000 votes in the 2019 Chicago mayoral election.

Yet there is every indication that Preckwinkle leads with integrity as chair of the powerful Cook County Democratic Party. It seemed fitting that Preckwinkle visited Bloom Township the day after the Chicago Tribune sang her praises when its Editorial Board endorsed her in the June 28 primary.

“We’ve been impressed with how she has managed a budget that has grown to $8 billion mostly without the recent need for new taxes, fines, fees or tax increases,” the Tribune Editorial Board wrote. “She’s avoided budget holes and her fiscal management has been so impressive, we’ve often suggested other Illinois political leaders borrow a page from her playbook.”

Speakers Thursday described how Preckwinkle developed comprehensive plans to outline her vision, then executed strategies with funding from private, county, local, state and federal sources.

“The keywords nowadays are intergovernmental cooperation and public private partnerships,” Bloom Township Supervisor TJ Somer said. “One thing I’ve learned in 35 years of politics is there’s nothing we can do alone that we can’t do better working together.”

Under Preckwinkle’s leadership, Cook County has channeled billions of dollars into rebuilding roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, sidewalks, streetlights, public housing and other projects from Blue Island to Chicago Heights, Lansing to Lemont and everywhere in between. Improvements have resolved neighborhood flooding, shortened commute times and increased access for people with disabilities.

“We will see the effects of this for generations to come,” said Cook County Board member Donna Miller, D-Lynwood.

Often, public improvements trace private business investments that help ease the property tax burden on homeowners. Preckwinkle also has focused on improving services ranging from health care and public safety to violence prevention and public transportation.

Her mantra for the Southland has been, “All for one, one for all.” She’s convinced dozens of small municipalities to work together for the common good rather than cannibalize revenues by luring developments to cross borders with lowball incentives.

“When you cross from Flossmoor into Chicago Heights you don’t ring a bell and say, ‘Oh, I’m in a new town,'” said Jay Readey, an elected Prairie State College trustee, Yale educated attorney and representative of the Southland Development Authority. “This is an interlinked municipality, as are all of our townships in the south suburbs.”

The Southland’s slow deterioration began in the 1970s when steel mills and other large employers left the region. The loss of industry shifted the tax burden onto those who remained. The lack of jobs can be directly tied to increased crime, violence and other societal ills.

“The only way forward is to grow the economy,” Readey said.

Preckwinkle long ago realized the decks were stacked against people in the south suburbs. She has tirelessly worked to correct that.

“We know residents of the Southland have the longest commutes of anyone in the county,” said Jennifer “Sis” Killen, the first female superintendent of the county’s Department of Transportation and Highways. “We want to ensure transportation is as easy and affordable as it can be.”

Preckwinkle’s county representatives worked with the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace to offer discounted fares to public transportation users through the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot.

“It’s one thing to say it, it’s another to fund it and do it,” Killen said.

The county has invested more than $200 million in recent years rebuilding public housing units in the Southland, said Rich Monocchio, executive director of the Cook County Housing Authority. In addition to making structural improvements to living spaces, the county is devoting other resources to serve residents.

“We’re going to have a social worker in every one of our buildings,” Monocchio said.

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Investments in broadband will address the digital divide in which people with lower incomes have less access to internet service.

“We’ve got a lot of big plans,” Monocchio said.

Preckwinkle fielded questions about animal control, violence prevention, behavioral health and other concerns during the town hall. She talked about the county’s guaranteed income program, among the nation’s largest. She discussed plans for the county to purchase medical debt for pennies on the dollar so collection agencies would force fewer people into bankruptcies.

Illinois and Cook County in particular have had more than their fair share of corrupt politicians who give citizens good reason to treat all public servants with skepticism. Their actions often overshadow the good work of those like Preckwinkle who promote fairness and opportunity.

“My position is that unless we invest in the parts of the county that are the most challenged, we’re not going to see the economic vitality that’s possible,” she said.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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