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Stroger details spending cuts
$3 billion plan would shed 450 jobs, close clinics

Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo and Judith Graham

Tribune staff reporter Michelle Keller contributed to this report

More than a dozen medical clinics would be closed and scores of prosecutors and public defenders would be among 450 employees cut under a $3 billion budget for 2007 proposed Tuesday by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

In a departure from the tax-and-spend budgets of his father and predecessor, John, Stroger declared that his plan closed a projected $500 million deficit without raising taxes or relying on "fiscal gimmicks." But commissioners and other elected officials questioned nearly $107 million in unidentified cuts that Stroger relied on to balance his proposal, wondering how they would be made.

For example, in addition to closing 16 community health clinics and eliminating some services at the county's three hospitals, the budget also calls for a $62 million "target adjustment" for the health services bureau with no further detail.

Thomas Glaser, the county's chief financial officer, said the health bureau had limited time to put together its spending plan and that those cuts will be identified in coming weeks as details are presented to the board's Finance Committee. Adjustments could include reductions for contractual services, unpaid furlough days for employees and other changes.

"It's evident now in looking at it that there's a $100 million hole" in the budget, Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) said. "There's no specifics to indicate how they're going to fill that hole."

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation watchdog group, commended Stroger for not raising taxes and said the other cuts should be identified before the board votes on the budget by the end of February.

"We're not concerned that it's not at that level of detail at this point," Msall said. "It's the start of a process."

That process has already created considerable angst for the county's 26,000 employees and for the health-care community that is bracing for the effects of reduced service at the region's largest safety-net provider.

Stroger's proposal would shrink the county's bureau of health services budget by $103 million, to $730 million. Dr. Robert Simon, the bureau's interim chief, said that clinics with the lowest patient numbers would be closed, and that hours and staffing would be expanded at the remaining sites to handle an increased workload.

He repeated his earlier warnings that patients could expect longer lines, at least in the short term as the system is restructured. But Simon declined to discuss details until his Jan. 31 presentation to commissioners.

In addition to closing the community clinics, the county would cut or consolidate services at its three hospitals, Stroger, Provident and Oak Forest.

At Provident, maternity, pediatric and nursery services would be eliminated, saving $3.3 million, and expectant mothers would be transferred to Stroger Hospital for deliveries. At Stroger, the departments of occupational medicine and plastic surgery would be eliminated, saving $1.5 million.

Dental services in the Public Health Department and at Stroger Hospital also would be eliminated.

"I don't know what recourse these people will have if that dental service closes," said Dr. Caswell Evans, associate dean for public health services at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry.

6,200 jobs at stake

Stroger last month directed department heads and the county's other elected officials to cut their spending by 17 percent as part of the new budget, saying as many as 6,200 workers could lose their jobs.

The plan released Tuesday proposed eliminating 1,492 full-time positions, but only about 30 percent are currently filled, Budget Director Donna Dunnings said.

The budget proposal now goes to the Finance Committee for two weeks of department and public hearings. Stroger will face opposition from labor unions, skeptical commissioners and other countywide elected officials in his first real test since he was elected in November to replace his ailing father.

Some members of the public defender's office grumbled that they would lose 36 lawyers and nine support staff members, while Public Defender Edwin Burnette, an appointee of the president's office, receives an 8 percent pay raise to $161,000. County spokesman Steve Mayberry said the increase was mandated by state law.

About 60 county employees who work in the Juvenile Court gathered outside the facility Tuesday to protest the cuts.

"Over 40,000 children walk through these doors," said Kathy Roller, assistant public defender. "With the proposed budget cuts, we will not be able to provide these services to these children. There has to be a better way to balance the budget."

About $2 million in budget cuts are slated to come through unpaid furlough days for employees, including some represented by unions that oppose the move.

Union to seek alternatives

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the county's single largest union with about 6,000 workers, said it would work with commissioners "to develop a fair budget alternative to the president's proposed cuts."

State's Atty. Richard Devine said he would contest budget cuts that would require laying off 75 prosecutors and closing five community prosecution offices.

Stroger proposed eliminating two entire departments under Sheriff Tom Dart, as well as the sheriff's inspector general. In his budget address, Stroger said funding was provided to hire 250 more jail guards, yet Stroger's finance team gave the sheriff a target adjustment to cut another $27 million in spending.

"Those types of cuts would have a devastating effect on the ability of the sheriff's office to provide day-to-day law enforcement services," spokeswoman Sally Daly said.

Glaser said the Stroger administration expects the elected officials, such as the sheriff, to identify the additional cuts needed to fulfill the target adjustment.



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