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  Cook County was created on January 15, 1831 and named after Daniel P. Cook, Member of Congress and the first Attorney from the State of Illinois.

County would lay off more than 1,000 under Preckwinkle budget

Monday, October 24, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

More than 1,000 Cook County government employees would be laid off under a budget proposal for 2012 that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will introduce on Tuesday that also would expand sin and luxury taxes and attempt to limit the cost of jailing non-violent offenders awaiting trial — all in an effort to balance the $3 billion budget.

Preckwinkle says she has found $110 million in savings through a range of initiatives including laying off 1,057 county workers. She said those layoffs could be avoided if labor unions agree to have their members take eight unpaid furlough days next year.

Preckwinkle’s proposed budget also calls on the 100,000 residents of unincorporated Cook County — 2 percent of the county’s 5.3 million residents — to decide whether to start paying the county for police services provided by the sheriff’s office or get their areas annexed in to a neighboring municipality.

Those who live in unincorporated areas don’t pay for police protection now but need to, Preckwinkle says.

“We’re going to push people to choose — annexation or [become] a special service area so you pay for the services you get and stop mooching off the other 98 percent of us,” Preckwinkle told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board.

Preckwinkle also wants to require people for the first time to pay to park at the county’s five suburban courthouses, as well as at the main Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California on Chicago’s West Side. She’s proposing a $4.75 parking fee. That would apply to everyone, including county employees and people summoned for jury duty.

Asked about jurors having to open their wallets to park, Preckwinkle said, “Yes. It’s their civic duty.”

Preckwinkle is looking at a $315 million deficit in next year’s budget, thanks in part to the Jan. 1 quarter-cent rollback of the county’s sales tax. Preckwinkle has stood firm on the rollback, a campaign promise that helped catapulted her to office last year.

Her predecessor, Todd Stroger, championed a penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax hike in 2008 that grew unpopular with consumers and business owners as the economy tanked. The hike meant Chicago had the dubious distinction of having the highest sales tax among the nation’s biggest cities.

On the eve of the 2010 elections, county commissioners — many of whom initially supported the hike — voted to roll back the hike by a half penny.

By then, the “Stroger sales tax” had taken on a life of its own and proved to be a liability Stroger couldn’t shed. He lost his re-election bid in the Democratic 2010 primary to Preckwinkle.

After taking office, Preckwinkle won the support of a majority of county commissioners for a gradual rollback of the remaining half-penny in January 2012 and January 2013.

Preckwinkle said she had to look hard at savings in the county’s public safety and the county’s health and hospital system serving the poor and uninsured, which represents two-thirds of the county budget. The bulk of that, she says, comes from payroll costs for 23,000 county staffers.

Preckwinkle — who will formally introduce a detailed budget at a special meeting Tuesday of the Cook County Board — also is planning to place hundreds of non-violent offenders on pretrial electronic monitoring, which at $67 a day per person is less than the $143 needed to keep them in jail.

“If you’re on electronic monitoring, you can go to work, continue to support your family,” Preckwinkle said. “You can go to school and continue your education, or you could be at home, under your own roof with food provided for yourself as opposed to us providing it for you.”

Preckwnkle is calling for similar cutbacks at Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detentention Center, the West Side facility where 10- to 16-year-old suspects are held, most of them while awaiting trial in juvenile court on criminal charges. The daily average population runs between 300 and 350.

In Cook County, the second-largest county in the country by population, an average of 35 kids are held at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for every 100,000 juveniles living here. By comparison, in Harris County, Texas, the third-most populous county with Houston as its anchor, there are 19 kids locked up for every 100,000 juveniles there.

Asked why Houston is able to lock up fewer kids, Preckwinkle said: “Because we’re Neanderthals. Forty-three percent of the kids are there for a week or less. What good does it do to put somebody in a juvenile detention center — a jail — for a week?

“What the research shows is the deeper you get in to the criminal justice system as a kid, the more likely you are to end up in prison,” Preckwinkle said. “So if you can keep kids out of the juvenile detention center in the first place, they’re less likely to end up in the [adult] Department of Corrections.”

She says it costs about $600 a day — about $220,000 annually — to house one child, when factoring in staff, the in-house public school and food. As a comparison, she points out it costs $52,000 a year to send a child to Harvard.

Beyond the justice system, Preckwinkle is calling on the health and hospital system to step up patient billing, renegotiate contracts and other measures that would shore up another $108 million.

Preckwinkle found the remaining $96 million needed to close the budget gap via measures including increasing the county’s alcohol tax from six cents a gallon to nine cents; boosting the “use” tax from a .75 percent to 1 percent on cars, boats and other so-called luxury items purchased outside the county; and expanding the cigarette tax to include loose tobacco and snuff.

Also, county janitorial services could be privatized under her plan. Preckwinkle is calling for the current unionized workers doing the job and private firms to compete for the jobs under a “managed competition” strategy to reduce the cost.

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