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Editorial: Preckwinkle right to demand cuts

Thursday, January 20, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Sun Times editorial staff

No one said this would be easy.

But new Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is absolutely right when she insists that county officials get serious about cutting their budgets a full 16 percent.

The county is facing a $487 million deficit in its roughly $3 billion-a-year operations, and there’s no way that kind of hole can be filled without pain. And remember, even if Preckwinkle and the County Board erase that $487 million deficit, they’ll be doing nothing more than getting the 2011 budget into line. There still would be no room to discontinue the county’s penny-on-the-dollar sales take increase, which Preckwinkle has pledged to repeal.

Preckwinkle has said she will make the 16 percent cuts in her own office, as have Assessor Joseph Berrios, the Board of Review, Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore and health and hospitals CEO William Foley. (Because the fiscal year started Dec. 1, the offices actually must cut by 21 percent to achieve 16 percent savings by year’s end.)

But State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Sheriff Thomas Dart and Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown — whose operations together typically account for a third of the budget — have said the 16 percent cut is too onerous for them.

We’re frankly surprised that Dorothy Brown can’t find a way to make significant trims in an office that traditionally has been larded with workers who don’t have much to do while others carry the load.

On the other hand, Alvarez and Dart — who say they are cooperating with Preckwinkle — have legitimate concerns.

Ninety-eight percent of Alvarez’s budget is personnel, and she is required to staff courtrooms throughout the county. If she doesn’t, the chief judge can appoint a special state’s attorney at a rate that Alvarez calculates at $185 an hour vs. the $65 an hour it costs for a staff lawyer.

Alvarez’s office also performs other tasks, but financial savings won’t be easy to find there, either, according to her numbers. For example, if the county outsourced the handling of Stroger Hospital’s medical malpractice suits, the expense would disappear from Alvarez’s budget, but the overall cost to the county would soar because outside lawyers would have to be hired.

Dart, meanwhile, must comply with court orders on staffing that make trimming his payroll an exceptional challenge. And even laying off every police officer, court deputy and appointed employee wouldn’t be sufficient to meet Preckwinkle’s goal. He has proposed a 9 percent cut.

Still, Preckwinkle is absolutely correct that costs must be brought into line. Alvarez and Dart should submit budgets that meet the 16 percent guideline. If the results are too onerous, the County Board would be free to ease up on the state’s attorney and sheriff and look for savings elsewhere.

To her credit, Preckwinkle sees the downside to across-the-board cuts, where bloated offices and lean ones get whacked the same, and she seems to be working to avoid that in the future. She has proposed ways to make county government more efficient and responsive, ranging from sharing office functions across county agencies to improving the efficiency of the criminal justice system. But she needs time to get it done.

In the meantime, the numbers have to add up.

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