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County cuts to raise fees, and inconvenience

Thursday, February 01, 2007
Pioneer Press
by JOHN HUSTON Staff Writer

Inconvenience will be the most identifiable effect of Cook County's 17 percent across-the-board budget cuts aimed at removing excess and saving "core missions," officials say.
Some fees will be raised, such as those for residents to obtain copies of birth, death and marriage certificates through the Clerk's office, as well those for Internet transactions with the Recorder of Deeds.
But in general, officials say the main cost to the public associated with preventing a property tax increase will be longer lines and slower services.
Both the Health Services and State's Attorney's departments will see large appropriations cuts and have threatened that services will be lost.
Todd Stroger, the Cook County board president, whose responsibility is to propose a budget each year for the County Board to adopt, presented the 1,000-plus page document to commissioners on Jan. 16.
"The president is presenting a budget that focuses on core missions," said Stroger's budget director Donna Dunning.
In the health services bureau, a $103 million appropriations cut will result in the closing of 16 of 26 clinics, said interim director Robert Simon.
"Clinic hours will increase and patients will be asked to be transferred," Simon said.
Another consolidation will be housing all childbirths at Stroger Hospital, he said.
Expectant mothers will be moved "either by car or by ambulance, as needed, from Provident to Stroger Hospital," Simon said.
Simon has shared the podium with Stroger to announce the budget cuts, having been appointed after the new president took office in December, but the county's State's Attorney, Richard Devine, has publicly opposed proposed cuts in his department.
The State's Attorney's office stands to lose $9.4 million in appropriations as part of the proposed budget - moving from $99.8 million last year to a proposed $90.4 million in 2007.
Devine's spokesman, John Gorman, said there will be about 100 prosecutors and another 100 investigators and support staff that will be eliminated to meet the budget.
"This would reduce us to a level where we'd spend less time with victims, less time with witnesses, less time reviewing cases," Gorman said.
He said it is illogical to cut each county department by an equal proportion.
"The state's attorney has said all along that across-the-board cuts do not take into consideration what each office does and the unique duties and responsibilities each department has," Gorman said. "It doesn't set priorities, it just sets a number. It's a simplistic way (to do a budget)."
Alongside the staff reductions, five "community prosecutor" offices, one in Maywood and four in Chicago, will be closed as a result of the budget cuts.
County Clerk David Orr is responsible for holding suburban elections, maintaining vital records and processing tax levies to local governments.
The appropriation for his office in the proposed budget was a $4.7 million cut over what it got last year.
Orr said his office doesn't offer inessential service to cut, but can increase fees in order to make up for the budget cut.
"Hopefully in our case it won't affect (the public) too much," Orr said. "We don't have what you call much fat in our office."
He expects to phase out 27 positions by December 2008, and "targeted layoffs" may need to be implemented.
"The challenge is that's still going to require a reduction of staff in an office that is already in a shortage of people," he said.
To offset additional staffing cuts, a $3 fee increase will be imposed for copies of birth, death and marriage certificates - from $10 to $13 - which is expected to generate an additional $1.1 million in revenue.
Not a tax hike
Orr said fee increases do not conflict with Stroger's intention to stop tax increases, whether property or sales taxes.
"That is something for people that use the services," Orr said. "I think the public appreciates that, as opposed to a sales tax which affects poor people the most."
Eugene Moore, Recorder of Deeds, said no services will be cut from his department either, but the cost for Internet transactions will double, from 50 cents to $1.
Of the approximately 250 positions in his department, 28 will be eliminated - about half of which are already vacant, he said.
To meet the $2.5 million cut in appropriations in Stroger's proposed budget, Moore's office is considering imposing 10 furlough days, which would save nearly $500,000, he said.
"I think it's better to do it that way than to lay them off," Moore said, before pledging to include himself.
"Management will included in the furloughs," Moore said. "I'm included in the furloughs."
Dorothy Brown, Clerk of the Circuit Court, said operations at the county's five suburban courthouses will be slower, but does not forecast doom on the judicial process.
"The average citizen will begin to notice slower processing of paper work filed and/or cases filed in the courtroom," Brown said. "We are asking the citizens of Cook County for patience as we service them in the most efficient and effective manner."
Seasonal summer positions will be eliminated, as well as an unidentified number of vacant full-time positions.
James Houlihan, County Assessor, said the biggest result of a proposed $4 million cut in appropriations to his office this year will be in public outreach.
"These cuts will have a drastic impact on what we're trying to do with peoples' understanding of property tax," said Houlihan, whose staff hosted 320 tax seminars last year throughout the county, gaining a total attendance of 70,000 people.
About 100 jobs in his office will be cut - 60 workers and 40 vacant positions - as well as closing branch locations in the five suburban courthouses.
Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose appropriations stand to lose $1.2 million in the budget proposal, said she will not argue over the cuts.
"I am not going to get into a fight with anybody," Pappas said. "I've been around 16 years. I've sat on that board. So my point of view is different. I know what it's like to go through a budget cycle."
Her philosophy will be to keep her head down.
"I'm just going to keep delivering services and automate," Pappas said, alluding to a plan to make automating her office in order to make it "paperless."
The project will make it more efficient and will allow 17 positions to be trimmed, she said.
"Fewer people means the ones who stay work harder," Pappas said, but an automated and paperless treasurer's office would run quicker and better for those seeking its services.

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