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Taking efficiency wherever we find it

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Daily Herald
by Daily Herald Editorial Board

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s renewed suggestion that suburban courthouses be closed on the weekends appears to have been made more in defiance of calls for spending cuts than in embracing them, but it deserves a deeper look whatever the intent. Even more important, it represents the kind of “zero-based” thinking that must be done at all levels if government is to bring its costs more in line with its revenues.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has demanded that all county departments trim spending this fiscal year by 20 percent. In his response to that call, Dart is correct to observe that the sheriff’s department operates with more fixed costs than most other agencies. The department, after all, is still governed by a court order to increase hiring at the overcrowded Cook County Jail. To his credit, Dart already has identified $43 million in cuts from his $440 million budget.

But that is not to say that more can’t be found if we’re willing to look at doing things differently than they’ve always been done before. Ending the Saturday suburban bond courts is that kind of topic — and it extends beyond simply the sheriff’s department, which obviously doesn’t run the court system but merely supports it.

The five Saturday bond courts — including those in Rolling Meadows and Skokie — effectively operate for about four hours each weekend. Although they employ skeleton staffs, they still require personnel from the sheriff’s department, the state’s attorney’s and public defenders offices, judicial offices, clerks and others. No cost estimates have yet been placed on reducing such a large segment of the courts operation, but it has to be, in the words of a Dart spokesman, a “huge savings.”

Which is not to say it’s a slam dunk. The process of changing could have many painful collateral effects. To be sure, the savings have to be considered against the costs that municipalities would assume in keeping suspects incarcerated all weekend, the expense of transporting prisoners for appearances downtown when necessary and the workload that would have to be absorbed during the rest of the week.

But those are figures that ought to be calculated, and the true value of Saturday bond court, beyond the obvious convenience, deserves close scrutiny. It is not enough to say that “we’ve always done it this way.” We have to be looking at new, more efficient ways to do them.

And that’s the kind of thinking that needs to applied everywhere in government, not just in the courts or sheriff’s department. Dart may have been challenging “the system” when he targeted suburban bond courts as a means of reducing his department’s costs, but inadvertently or not, he hit on an idea that, if it stands up to further research, could result in substantial, ongoing efficiency.

That’s a spirit not to be defied but encouraged.

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