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Prosecutors press county for pay raise

Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer

Scores of Cook County prosecutors, fed up with what they call unfair salaries compared to public defenders, took time off work Tuesday and packed a County Board meeting to ask for a raise.

Since county commissioners approved a budget in February, 52 prosecutors are said to have left their jobs. The turnover figure is double the typical loss rate, said Kim L. Ward, an assistant state's attorney who helped organize the rally and spoke to a reporter before the meeting.

And state's attorney officials have previously said that office morale was low because lawyers in the public defender's office had received raises, while prosecutors haven't received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2004.

The lawyers want a 12.75 percent raise, a $500 bonus and another check that would be retroactive to 2004 to match the pay increases given to assistant public defenders last year. The public defender deal applies to paychecks from 2004 to 2008.

''You have a bunch of assistant state's attorneys who have six years of experience who have one foot out the door,'' Ward said. ''You're going to be left with people representing victims in the city and county who don't have the experience. That just sends the message by [County Board President] Todd Stroger that 'We just feel victims of crime don't matter and they're not worth it.' ''

County commissioners debated the matter, and some talked about raising taxes and cutting waste, but no action was taken Tuesday morning.

Commissioner John Daley, chairman of the Finance Committee, said during the meeting that it was unfair that prosecutors have not received a cost-of-living adjustment in the past few years.

''I'm willing to support you in any way whatsoever,'' Daley said, adding that raises haven't been issued to prosecutors because the County Board hasn't supported a new revenue stream to cover them.

Stroger didn't directly address the prosecutors' concerns during the meeting. But he said that if board members want to talk about cutting waste, ''somebody's got to put a list out. You know someone who's not doing his job? Put him on a list and let me know.''

''Everyone talks about waste and patronage, but they're not pointing out, 'This guy over there is not doing anything.' We eliminated a lot of positions in that last budget…. We have to look at this like it's a true business and run it like it and try to stay out of the papers just talking about it. And do some real serious business,'' Stroger said.

Prosecutors said they believed that they would receive a raise after the budget was approved earlier this year. Outside the boardroom, Commissioner Michael B. Quigley told reporters that the only reason the budget passed was because Stroger promised cost-of-living increases for prosecutors.

''That promise was made to me, and that promise was made to the state's attorney in front of me, and the president has broken that promise,'' Quigley said.

Last December, Quigley proposed selling county property in Oak Forest to fund the raises, he said. So far, the county has only worked on getting an appraisal for the land, Quigley said.

''If the president's office had not dragged its feet, that money would have been available now, and the COLAs would have been paid, and his promise would have been kept,'' Quigley told reporters.

State's Attorney Richard A. Devine first approached the County Board about pay raises last November, shortly after the Law Bulletin examined payroll figures obtained from the president's office. The examination revealed that the median salary for lawyers in the public defender's office was $77,611, compared to $62,926 in the state's attorney's office.

The data also showed that public defenders, who get annual raises through their union contract, were more likely to stay on the job longer than prosecutors, who can't organize in a labor union.

After the board debate Tuesday, Devine told reporters that he isn't ''too sensitive about where the funds come from'' to pay for raises.

''The decision was made a long time ago when the public defenders were granted this [more than] 12 percent raise, that this was a fair wage. We have people working in the same courtrooms, working long hours, who have received nothing,'' Devine said, drawing applause from the group of prosecutors gathered in the sweltering hallway.

Devine added that if the County Board can find raises for other employees without new taxes — such as $9 million on Tuesday's agenda for sheriff's deputies — the same consideration should be given to his office.

''We're not trying to take anything away from anybody who has what they have. We're just saying that the people who work alongside them should not be penalized,'' Devine told reporters.

Commissioner Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr. distributed a memo at the meeting that indicated that he has been negotiating behind closed doors with the president's administration to pay for the prosecutors' raises of 12.75 percent from existing funds and new funds from two court settlements. In the memo, Suffredin said the administration suggested a combination of a $1,000 bonus and a 3 percent raise, as well as back pay to 2004.

The goal, Suffredin said, would be to approve a deal on July 31 so payments could begin in August.

At one point during the meeting, Commissioner William Beavers, who is black, asked whether there were any black prosecutors in the room.

''Alright, you got two,'' Beavers said, looking around. ''Two. Out of how many?''

One minority prosecutor in the crowd stood up to tell Beavers that there are other minority races represented in the office. Another black prosecutor quipped that the other black lawyers were in the hallway.

Asked outside the boardroom to respond to Beavers' comment, Devine said the statement was inappropriate and ''designed to be divisive.''

''Our diversity efforts and our diversity record is as good as any office around. Our percentages of minorities is way above that of the local law schools…. As was noted in the meeting, the great bulk of the victims of violent crime are minorities,'' he said.

''Our prosecutors work their hearts out on behalf of those victims and their families,'' Devine said. ''They are on the front line doing the job doing the job — unlike some other people who talk the talk but don't do anything to fight the fight.''

The assistant state's attorneys said they used vacation days to attend the meeting. Calls to three officials in the Criminal Courts Building weren't returned by early Tuesday afternoon to determine how the lack of prosecutors may have affected the flow of cases in the criminal justice system.



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