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Preckwinkle proposes more than 1,000 layoffs in county

Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

In her first-ever budget address, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle introduced a spending plan aimed at overhauling a government that has long made headlines for patronage hiring and waste.

“We’re making government leaner and meaner,’’ Preckwinkle vowed as she laid out her $3.1 billion budget proposal on Tuesday to Cook County Commissioners.

To close a $487 million deficit, her plan calls for at least 1,075 layoffs on a county payroll that counts 23,700 employees, refinancing the county’s debt and more aggressively going after unpaid taxes, including from businesses that are not paying county cigarette taxes.

Whether county residents will see a drop in services was unclear.

“Our view is that you can make the cuts that we’re making and continue to have good services — we’re trying to make county government more effective and more efficient and we believe we can do that with a reduced workforce,’’ Preckwinkle told reporters at a news conference later in the morning.

Elected in November, Preckwinkle said mass layoffs are a tough thing to do walking in the door.

“While some people who are being laid off were clearly slackers or shirkers, the overwhelming majority were good and decent people who just got up every day and went to work and tried to do a good job. It’s very painful to me that one of my first tasks in public office — in this office — is to put so many people out on the street ... in a very difficult time for them to seek re-employment,’’ Preckwinkle told reporters.

Since she took office, Preckwinkle has been calling on fellow elected leaders — from Assessor Joe Berrios to Treasurer Maria Pappas — to trim their budgets 16 percent.

In the end, Preckwinkle is proposing smaller cuts for the law enforcement arm of Cook County, which handles jail security, prosecuting crimes and defending the indigent. She’s calling for Sheriff Tom Dart to cut spending by 12 percent or $53 million while the Public Defender and Cook County State’s Attorney offices would each trim their budgets by 10 percent.

“The Public Defender effectively articulated the negative impact that a 16 percent cut would produce — that too many would be left without access to legal representation. We agreed that we could reach 10 percent,’’ Preckwinkle said.

She lauded officials running the health and hospital system, which provides care for the poor and uninsured, for trimming their county subsidy by 21 percent — allowing for the smaller cuts in law enforcement.

The hospital system is implementing a strategic plan that calls for shutting down Provident and Oak Forest hospitals — whose patient numbers have fallen over the years — and turning them in to regional urgent care centers.

Preckwinkle said she cut her own budget 17 percent — which includes the layoff of more than 400 staff and cutting her own $160,000 pay by 10 percent.

But along with the cost-cutting, Preckwinkle said it’s important to re-think operations and to put in place budget controls.

“It is not enough simply to cut government — we have to rethink the way it works,’’ Preckwinkle said.

She pointed out that in the president’s office alone spending was out of control. While the 2010 budget called for her predecessor Todd Stroger’s office to receive $2.3 million, his office had given raises and boosted other spending to the tune of $2.9 million.

“Moving forward, the budget controls we put in place will be non-negotiable. What is budgeted for a certain office is what will be spent,’’ Preckwinkle said.

The 2011 budget proposal, Preckwinkle says, sets the stage for rolling back what’s left of an unpopular penny-on-the-dollar county sales tax. It was that sales tax hike that helped cost her predecessor, Todd Stroger, his re-election bid last year.

Preckwinkle vowed to trim a quarter-cent next year and the final quarter-cent in 2013.

Cook County commissioners must approve the final 2011 budget by Feb. 28.



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