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County Board prospecting for revenues

Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer

After approving higher salaries for prosecutors and other non-union workers, Cook County commissioners will now ask several criminal court-related offices to come up with new revenue and to find cost savings.
The board plans to hold a hearing later this month to ask the chief judge, circuit clerk, state's attorney and sheriff to present information on their costs associated with traffic school, driving under the influence evaluations, drug treatment programs, work release, electronic monitoring, teen court diversion and mental health care programs.
Commissioners then want the offices to suggest ways to save money and raise revenue through those programs.
''This is part of my effort to push the public safety side to be as responsive to revenue collection as the public health side is,'' said Commissioner Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr., who sponsored the resolution. ''My goal is to really understand all the money that is generated from public safety.''
For starters, Suffredin said he wants to make sure judges are imposing the proper criminal fees. Suffredin said he has learned that, in the past, the fee schedules on judges' desks weren't up to date.
''It's taken up to six or eight months to get fees we impose put on there,'' Suffredin said.
Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans said he wasn't aware of a lag time to update fee schedules, but if it exists, he will respond.
''We intend to cooperate fully with the approach that they're taking,'' Evans said.
Evans said his office is reviewing all fees to find out whether any more revenue can be generated. Although Suffredin's resolution addresses on criminal fees and not civil matters, Evans said the court could look at raising fees in civil cases, such as the counseling services that the county provides for litigants in child custody cases.
''We are not at this point ready to say anything specifically because the resolution was just passed. But, yes, we are looking at a number of options that might be available,'' Evans said.
''But we certainly want to make sure that whatever is embraced by the judiciary is fair and equitable. We don't want to cut costs at the risk of increasing the possibility that the public would not be safe,'' Evans said.
Both Suffredin and Evans acknowledged that indigent offenders wouldn't be able to pay any higher fees.
''Many of the people who come through the court system do not have access to resources to pay what is already ordered,'' Evans said. ''But that's a case-by-case review. There is no blanket way for dealing with that.''
The county has a top-notch method for assessing fines and fees, said Bernard J. Murray, chief of the state's attorney's criminal prosecution bureau.
''But collection is where the rubber meets the road. In traffic court, you can't get your driver's license back until you have paid the fees. In other courts, collection is not as universal,'' Murray said.
In addition to stepping up efforts to collect fines, Murray said, the county could look at the small number of fines that are not raised to the maximum penalty allowed by the state.
Making cuts to programs to save money might not be easy, Murray said.
''I guess there's always room to make all programs more efficient, but I think those programs are lean right now. I'd be surprised if we could squeeze any more blood out of that turnip,'' Murray said.
One potential cost-saving measure that Suffredin suggests is letting the National Safety Council handle traffic school, which the council estimates would generate $1 million for the county.
Currently, Suffredin said, drivers pay $125 for traffic school, and the money goes to a program run by Northwestern University. Suffredin said the National Safety Council wouldn't bill the county for administrative costs and would take only $10 or $15 of that fee, leaving the rest to the county.
In a statement, Circuit Clerk Dorothy A. Brown said she looks forward to the hearing, and that the County Board's request for it shows ''a needed sense of efficient oversight.''
Discussion of finding new revenue for next year's county budget dominated the morning session of Tuesday's County Board meeting.
The debate came shortly before commissioners unanimously approved a pay raise package for non-union county employees, including lawyers in the state's attorney's and public guardian's offices.

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