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County leaders say proposed cuts could hurt public safety

Thursday, December 30, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

As a budget crisis looms, Cook County law enforcement and court officials say proposed budget cuts will put the brakes on the wheels of justice.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown have sent separate protest letters to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has proposed annual cuts of 16 percent to all county offices.

And Sheriff Tom Dart’s office has raised questions about whether he can make the cuts and still abide by staffing mandates set by court order.

But Preckwinkle, working to craft a $3 billion-plus spending plan for 2011, has asked her fellow elected leaders to make the cuts in order to close a projected $487 million shortfall.

In her Dec. 23 letter, Brown says cutting that deeply into her $175 million budget would slow services. Her office maintains and processes files for court proceedings, from criminal cases to foreclosures.

“A budget reduction at that level would have a considerably detrimental impact on court services,’’ Brown wrote. “A cut of this magnitude would require a reduction of almost a fourth of the staff. Reducing a fourth of the staff while knowing that we are already understaffed would not represent good business and management sense for me as an elected official.’’

Her note also suggested raising court fees and collecting juvenile court fees — something she says is allowed by state law but is currently “not being assessed by the judiciary’’ — from parents and guardians of kids in trouble with the law. Her office projects that expanding, hiking and enforcing collection of fees could generate between $21 million and $33 million annually.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez sent a similar letter, although she declined to release it to the public.

The proposed cuts “would have a significant impact on public safety,’’ Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly said in an interview. “It’s going to result in a drastic cutback of prosecutors, and it would dramatically affect our ability to efficiently prosecute criminal cases and handle civil cases for the county.”

Daly explained that 95 percent of the state’s attorney’s $149 million budget is for personnel costs, which is mainly for prosecutors.

She later said the office was “reviewing operations from top to bottom to assess where cutbacks could be made or cost savings achieved without compromising’’ public safety. She said pay cuts could be an option.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has also said such deep cuts might impact public safety.

“We’re under a court order to add hundreds of new positions at our jail, which has been understaffed for years,’’ sheriff’s spokesman Steve Patterson said.

Patterson said his office is looking for some cost-savings. The sheriff has long backed the idea of taking over the duties of the Forest Preserve police. And Dart is considering closing court buildings on evenings and weekends at times when they aren’t open to the public.

In a prepared statement, Preckwinkle said budget discussions are ongoing.

“I remain firm that no will be absolved and no one will be alone. Collaboration isn’t an option, it’s a necessity if we are to meet this challenge before us,” she said.

“ . . . Admittedly, we’re making tough choices, but these adjustments must be made as part of a team effort and they must be made now if we are to sustain county services over the long-term.’’

Other county officials have supported the cuts, including Assessor Joe Berrios, Health and Hospitals CEO William Foley, Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore, Cook County Commissioner John Daley and members of the county’s tax appeals board.

Preckwinkle is expected to deliver her budget recommendation to county commissioners by the end of January. They must approve the final spending plan.

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