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County officials agree to slash budgets; layoffs and pay cuts expected

Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, up against a deadline to close an estimated $487 million gap in the 2011 budget, surrounded herself at a press conference Wednesday with county officials who have agreed to slash their budgets.

Assessor Joe Berrios and Health and the CEO for the county’s health and hospitals CEO William Foley, and other elected leaders said they’ll be able to meet the 21 percent cut Preckwinkle asked, and that could result in layoffs or pay cuts or both.

“The county is facing an enormous budget challenge,” Preckwinkle told reporters outside her office.

She praised Berrios, Foley, Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore, Cook County Commissioner John Daley, who heads the powerful finance committee, and members of the Cook County’s tax appeals board for pledging to meet the 21 percent cuts next year.

“They’re probably are going to be a lot of layoffs,” Berrios said. The assessor’s office has a $22 million budget and roughly 380 jobs - about 90 percent of them union.

The unions may be asked to consider concessions, including unpaid days off, to save some jobs.

The health and hospital system plans to meet the 21 percent goal and Foley said with the 300 to 400 layoffs--which will come with the conversion of Oak Forest and Provident Hospitals to urgent care centers--$83 million in cost savings will be realized. While the health and hospital system is a $1.1 billion operation, spokesman Lucio Guerrero explained that the county subsidy is roughly $400 million.

Some have raised concerns that the law enforcement arm of the county, including the sheriff and state’s attorney’s office, may be crippled by a 21 percent cut.

Cook County Public Defender Abishi Cunningham, who wasn’t at the press conference, told the Sun-Times earlier this month that the 21 percent cut means 130 lawyers on his 500-member staff could lose their jobs - and slow the wheels of justice for the poor defendants they represent.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Cunningham said. “If we lose lawyers, it’s going to slow down the process of enabling us to work on cases, which means that inmates will spend longer times at the Cook County Jail, which could be a problem for the county (jail) because the sheriff’s office has entered a court-ordered consent decree to reduce jail overcrowding.”

Cunningham said his office is looking at different grants available to keep the office in business. Annually the office handles 24,000 felony cases and another 230,000 misdemeanor cases.

Wednesday, Preckwinkle said she’s confident the 21 percent goal can be met, including the sheriff and state’s attorney’s office.

“They’re working with our staff and it’s my expectation that they will,” Preckwinkle said.

The clock is ticking on a Feb. 28th deadline to approve what is expected to a be a $3.5 billion spending plan in 2011.

Preckwinkle is expected to submit a spending plan next month, giving county commissioners another month to review and vote on a final budget.

While she can only request the 21 percent cuts, she can’t order them. Still, state law requires a balanced budget and Preckwinkle has continued to be the drum that “no one will be absolved” in the budget cutting process.

So, she said, she’s starting with her own office. While the budget is a work-in-progress, she is taking a 10 percent pay cut, meaning her $160,000-a-year salary will fall to $144,000.

In addition, she’s called for a moratorium on capital projects that aren’t essential, allowing for what she says is “a review” of some 200 projects with a price tag of $900 million.

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