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Stroger stands firm behind call for budget cuts

Wednesday, December 27, 2006
ABC/Channel 7 news
by Charles Thomas

December 27, 2006 - Cook County President Todd Stroger is standing strong on his request for major cuts in the Cook County budget. The county's public defender's office announced cuts in its budget Wednesday. Stroger calls that proof that every county department can make the necessary cuts to control the budget deficit.
One day after the state's attorney complained that a 17 percent across-the-board cut would put public safety at risk, the Stroger administration sponsored a news conference at which the public defender announced his office will make the requested budget reduction.
"Rumors of pink slips, layoffs across the board to the extent we thought necessary before will not come to fruition," said Edwin Burnette, Cook County public defender.
With two Stroger press aides nearby, and dozens of curious staff members watching, public defender Edwin Burnette promised only 25 office workers and possibly only 50 lawyers would be laid off to cut $3.8 million from last year's budget.
To keep layoffs at a minimum, the public defender's office will assign some workers four day work weeks, every employee must take a 10-day unpaid leave or furlough, the office's human resources and payroll functions will be consolidated into a central county bureau, and private law firms that do business with Cook County will be asked to handle some public defender cases for free.
"My target is that we cut in places where we don't have to lay off," said Burnette.
Tuesday, Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine said to cut 17 percent from his budget would mean 300 fewer prosecutors and investigators, massive case loads and ultimately, more crime. He and other department heads and union leader have called president Todd Stroger's across-the-board approach to budget cuts simplistic and backwards.
Assistant public defender Beatrice Santiago said increasing caseloads for either state's attorneys or public defenders could mean longer waits for trials.
"It would take more time to try and resolve the cases and it would slow the process down," said Santiago.
And veteran defender Martha Fitzsimmons called the plan to use private law firms pro bono unrealistic.
"If you made $500 an hour, would you come in and take a little burglary case? How about a random rape case?" said Fitzsimmons.
She says, at some point soon, county officials must consider raising taxes.
"Someone is gonna have to talk about revenue. Why the county commissioner's have played around with this and not dealt with the revenue side of it is beyond me," said Fitzsimmons.
President Stroger, who opposes any tax increase to help close the $500 million budget deficit, was supposed to have met Wednesday with state's attorney Devine. His aides say the meeting was cancelled because Stroger is ill.
But Stroger's media aides were busy Wednesday. They called and coordinated the public defender's press conference.

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