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Don't make county's woes worse

Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Robert F. Harris, Cook County Public Guardian
Letter to the Editor

Chicago -- This is in response to "The 10 percent solution" (Editorial, Dec. 15).

Over the past five or six months, I, along with my top staff, have discussed and acted on ways to streamline our operations in representing abused and neglected children, disabled, mostly elderly adults and children in hotly contested divorce cases.

We have consolidated caseloads, moved staff to streamline operations and have staff doing jobs in two different divisions.

All of this is done in the face of salaries woefully less than those of attorneys in other offices and the private sector.

However, as I look at all of our changes, whereas they are significant in our universe, the money that these changes have saved the county is a mere pittance when compared to Cook County's reported $500 million problem.

My entire budget is approximately .5 percent of the total Cook County budget and my staff represents about 1 percent of Cook County's employees.

As I pondered what else that we could do, I started to look at the hard numbers and, as crass as it may sound when you are providing a social service, our profitability levels.

We generate fees in the Disabled Adults Division for work that we do acting as guardian for more than 850 wards. We also have obtained fees over the past 10 to 15 years in lawsuits against the Department of Children and Family Services and other agencies because of the abuse some of our clients have received while in foster care.

In the Domestic Relations Division, we have restructured our fee schedule and sought fees more aggressively. This year we will have given approximately $2 million to the county treasury.

The fees we collected this year reflect approximately 12.5 percent of our budget and a return to Cook County coffers. I then looked at the amount of assets and money that we have recovered for our disabled elderly wards who were exploited by various people, robbed of their life savings, their homes and their dignity.

Since 2001 when we first opened the very small Citations Unit, we have recovered approximately $8.9 million stolen from our very vulnerable wards.

Due to changes in the staffing levels, approximately $5 million of that amount has been recovered since December of 2004.

All in all, our small part in the Cook County family has provided from moderate to high revenues to Cook County's treasury and to disabled Cook County citizens.

Making a 10 percent to 17 percent cut in our budget goes from trimming perceived fat to cutting deep into the muscle and indeed the brain, heart and stomach of our operations and service to Cook County.



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