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Courthouse cafeterias could raise money by selling hot food

Friday, June 15, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Cook County is so short on money that it has been forced to cut the budgets for the state's attorney, sheriff's police and health clinics.
In the basement of five Cook County suburban courthouses, there are cafeterias that sit empty, except for vending machines.
They used to serve hot meals.
Prosecutors, public defenders, lawyers, judges, court reporters, clerks, sheriff's deputies and thousands of citizens on jury duty, along with witnesses, and friends or relatives of people on trial, use the courthouses each day.
But they're forced to leave the building if they want a hot lunch.
That means filing back in through metal detectors later in the day, emptying pockets, taking off belts, forgetting the cell phone in the coat pocket and setting off the alarm, which causes the entire anti-terrorist assembly line to grind to a halt.
Most of all, it means the county is losing money it could be making by leasing the cafeterias to hot food vendors. Or so it seemed to me.
"The cafeteria here never sold hot food," I was told by an employee for the presiding judge at the Bridgeview courthouse.
I ate there.
"I don't think so," I was told.
I know so.
"Well it must have been a long time ago," I was told. "At least a year."
It probably was several years ago.
"Call the Cook County Board president's office," I was told.
So I called the press secretary to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.
"We wouldn't handle that," he said.
Who would?
"The Cook County Circuit Court clerk's office."
I called the Cook County Circuit Court clerk's office.
"We don't handle that," I was told. "Try the county board president's office."
I did.
I was told to contact the office of the chief judge of the Cook County courts, Timothy Evans.
No one there seemed to know anything about the cafeterias.
"Try calling facilities management," I was told. "They're in charge of running the county buildings."
Ann Ashcroft, special assistant to county board president Todd Stroger, told me her office did not operate the cafeterias.
"They were run by the state through Enterprises for the Blind," Ashcroft said.
Why did the state run cafeterias in county courthouses?
The county paid for the buildings. The county maintains the structures and pays to heat them and cool them.
Ashcroft wasn't sure why the state had the cafeteria contracts, but county judges are actually paid by the state and that might have something to do with it, she suggested.
Tom Green, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, which runs a program called Enterprises for the Blind, did some checking and confirmed the state used vendors to operate the cafeterias in the Cook County courthouses.
Enterprises for the Blind runs a program that is supposed to train and find jobs for blind people.
Green said the cafeterias in the suburban courthouses, Bridgeview, Markham, Skokie, Rolling Meadows and Maywood, closed about five years ago.
The cafeteria in the Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue, is closed for remodeling, but otherwise continues to operate.
Why did the suburban court cafeterias close?
"From what I understand, they were losing money," Green said.
It turns out the money from the vending machines at the county courthouses helps fund the state program for the blind.
Enterprises for the Blind also receives revenues from snack shops it leases to vendors at the county building.
That's a fine and noble purpose.
But there are large cafeterias in each of the five courthouses with nothing but vending machines in them and I've got to think they could be serving hot food for a profit.
Just about every county office that exists (assessor, treasurer, recorder of deeds) runs a satellite office in the court buildings.
Citizens called for jury duty, who may have no other contact with the court system, find themselves driving through strange neighborhoods looking for a place to eat.
"I used to love eating in the cafeteria in Markham," said former presiding judge Sheila Murphy.
"That's how I found out what was really going on in the courthouse, by talking to the employees and visitors."
Given the reputation of state and county officials for handing out sweetheart deals to vendors who contribute to political campaigns, its difficult to believe the courthouse cafeterias have been overlooked.
"You'll be my hero if you can get us some hot food," said one court employee.
Feed the hungry. Make some money. Help taxpayers.
That's what I'm here for. Now if I can get someone in the county to pay attention...


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