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Public defender meets budget cuts. Layoffs could be required, official says

Thursday, December 28, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Tribune staff reporter Carlos Sadovi contributed to this report

Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette said Wednesday that his office has complied with County Board President Todd Stroger's directive to cut its budget by 17 percent, a move that could result in the layoffs of up to 50 assistant public defenders.

Burnette's announcement presented a significant shift in position from a week ago when a spokesman said the office would have to let go of about 200 workers and pull lawyers from misdemeanor courtrooms if Stroger forced a budget cut of more than $9 million.

†Calling his initial budget proposal "unimaginative," Burnette said he was able to reach the budget target with fewer possible layoffs by incorporating other ideas, such as furloughs, four-day work weeks, and by harnessing private lawyers to do more pro bono work representing the office's clients.

Burnette said he would continue to fine-tune his budget proposal in the hopes of minimizing layoffs, which could also include 25 non-lawyers.

"The president has tasked us with being creative and more imaginative but practical in terms of the ways that we meet our budget target," said Burnette, who was appointed by Stroger's father, former board President John Stroger. "And we're doing that ... with a view toward not having to lay off. Now if efficiencies dictate that we lay off in some areas, that's fine."

The Stroger administration worked closely with Burnette in recent days on his new budget proposal. A spokesman pointed to the office as an example other department heads and elected officials could follow as they look to cut their own spending plans for 2007.

Stroger last week announced that he had called for a 17 percent cut throughout the county to close a projected deficit of $500 million without raising taxes. Elected officials from the sheriff to the state's attorney to the county assessor promptly said such deep cuts would cause severe service disruptions, and some officials criticized Stroger for issuing the mandate without first negotiating with them.

On Tuesday, Stroger responded in a statement saying the elected officials were refusing to cooperate with the budget process.

A meeting scheduled for Wednesday between Stroger and State's Atty. Richard Devine was canceled because Stroger was ill, spokesman Steve Mayberry said. That meeting, and others with elected officials, will be rescheduled.

Adrienne Mebane, Devine's chief of staff, said they looked forward to meeting with Stroger and his budget team. She said Devine is "willing to negotiate" over his budget, but she added that he would prefer not to cut staff.

In the public defender's office, Burnette said he and his staff were able to cut an additional $3.8 million from their initial proposal by preparing for a number of cost-cutting measures. Those include a mandatory 10-day furlough for all employees in the office, a four-day work week for some, and asking all law firms that do business with the county to represent clients pro bono, or without charge.

Burnette said the plan includes reducing 25 non-lawyer positions in the budget and potentially laying off no more than 50 lawyers. The office would also consolidate payroll and other functions with other county agencies and eliminate automatic cost-of-living increases for non-union workers.

Bob Galhotra, vice president of the union representing assistant public defenders, said the plan represented a breach of faith, noting members ratified a new contract earlier this year.

"The public defender's office has been trim for some time and according to Ed Burnette is getting trimmer," Galhotra said. "But not without a good fight."

Martha Fitzsimmons, a 20-year assistant public defender, said the prospect of layoffs has created anxiety in the office.

"Not all of those issues can be solved on the backs of the workers," Fitzsimmons said. "$500 million cannot be gotten out of the blood of the Cook County workers. It's just not there."


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