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Final budget softens cuts in law agencies

Monday, February 26, 2007
Special to
by Stephanie Potter

The Cook County Board early Friday approved a 2007 budget in which compromises lessened the blow of some proposed cuts to the justice system.
After months of controversy and hours of delay Thursday while commissioners negotiated the final details, the board approved the $3 billion budget by a vote of 13-4. The budget closes a $500 million deficit without tax increases.
While many public safety offices were cut less than anticipated, officials said painful reductions still must be carried out. The cuts include about 50 prosecutors and several public defenders, as well as the slated elimination of juvenile court hearing officers.
Many attorneys credit the hearing officers with improving the child protection system from where it was in the early 1990s, when a large backlog of cases meant children were not receiving legally mandated permanency hearings in the time required. Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans could not be reached for comment Friday morning on the future of the hearing officers.
The budget eliminates 62 courthouse deputy positions, rather than the more than 230 that once had been proposed by Board President Todd H. Stroger. Those positions will be funded at $1, so they can be filled if funding becomes available.
Early Friday, before the final vote on the budget, Cook County State's Attorney Richard A. Devine said the board had prevented a worst-case scenario for his office by restoring about $4.3 million in funding.
The money will be used to prevent additional layoffs, restore the drug diversion program and give raises to prosecutors. The funding, however, isn't enough to provide full parity with the public defender's office, Devine said.
Prosecutors have said they earn substantially less than their counterparts.
''Essentially, I would say it prevents a disaster from occurring, which is good,'' Devine said. ''But we have to remember we're still going to be down 144 employees, including 53 prosecutors and 10 investigators. So we're undergoing substantial cuts which are going to be difficult.''
On Friday morning, Devine spokesman John Gorman said Commissioner Michael B. Quigley had assured the state's attorney's office that Stroger was committed to providing a cost-of-living raise for prosecutors. The raises would be funded by the sale of property in the Oak Forest Hospital area, Gorman said.
Gorman promised ''massive resignations'' if the cost-of-living increases don't come through.
''The morale of this office is at an all-time low,'' Gorman said.
Gorman said 100 employees have been told they will lose their jobs; the other 44 positions are currently vacant and will remain unfilled. The office is set to eliminate its community prosecution, nuisance abatement, arson, and energy and environment units.
Cook County Public Defender Edwin A. Burnette said Friday morning that his office is now facing layoffs for about 10 assistant public defenders, down from the 36 that would have lost their jobs in Stroger's original budget proposal.
Burnette said meetings were planned for Friday afternoon to find ways to cut costs without that many layoffs.
He credited Stroger and commissioners for working to minimize the impact of budget cuts on his office and its clients. For example, a budget amendment sponsored by Commissioner Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr. that came in the wee hours of the morning restored five attorneys who try death penalty cases.
''It's a tremendous relief, and also the lower the number goes the less chance there's going to be a mass disruption of the criminal justice system as would have been the case with [the loss of] 36 public defenders,'' Burnette said.
However, Brendan P. Max, an assistant public defender and a member of the union executive board, said Friday morning that any cuts hurt the office.
''By any national standards, our case loads are already dangerously high,'' Max said. ''There really should be talk of adding lawyers to the office, not cutting them.''
Max supported an alternative budget plan that proponents said would have cut more patronage jobs in favor of keeping more police, nurses and criminal justice workers.
''It chops at the top and protects the people at the bottom who actually deliver real services,'' said one of the plan's chief backers, Commissioner Forrest E. Claypool.
But some commissioners, like Quigley, said the alternative plan counted on uncertain revenue projections. Suffredin, a backer of the alternative plan, disputed that and said it included an adjustment for job turnover that is routinely used in budget calculations.
Before the voting began, Quigley said he would support Stroger's budget because it included a reduction of about 1,500 full-time positions and closed the deficit without a tax hike.
''It is hard for me to abandon a president who for the first time does those things,'' Quigley.
The compromise budget also reversed some anticipated cuts in probation officers and eliminated some administrative positions in the office of Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy A. Brown. Brown's office did not issue a response to the budget on Friday morning.

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