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How Cook County finally got a new budget

Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County finally has a new budget. After weeks of wrangling, the county board voted 17-0 to enact the $5 billion spending plan, filling the $200 million hole they created with they repealed President Toni Preckwinkle's soda-pop tax with a variety of spending cuts and revenue tweaks.

The action was expected. Probably the better story is some of the stuff that went on behind the scenes. Such as how the Public Guardian's office, which at one point had been targeted for massive cuts, managed in the end to come out OK.

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The answer to the latter: Some unpaid furlough days here and there, a bit of creative accounting and, above all, screaming your head off at absolutely the right time.

Under a budget amendment that Preckwinkle began floating late last week, the office—which among others represents abused children whose cases come up in court as well as disabled seniors who are having trouble with their service providers—was slated to lose 21 staffers to layoffs, 20 of them lawyers, and be barred from replacing 15 other attorneys who left the office during the year. That's a huge cut for an agency that only has 206 positions, about half of them attorneys, according to Acting Public Guardian Charles Golbert, who was appointed to his job in September.

Acting department heads usually don't have much clout in budget wars, particularly since Golbert's office in this case reports to another official, Timothy Evans, the chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court. But when word of the cuts hit, Golbert got busy, calling reporters and county commissioners alike to make his case.

In an interview I had with him Monday morning, Golbert noted that one feature of the layoffs was that they targeted individual staffers, among them the most productive and experienced people in the office.

Golbert noted one, the senior investigator in the office's intake unit, "works 50 to 60 hours a week. She takes work home." Without her, the office would lose much of its ability to take in new cases, Golbert said. Another staffer on the hit list was the office expert in handling veterans and other benefits. Overall, "we just cannot do a comprehensive job" without the key staffers, he argued.

As it turned out, county sources said, the key staffers were targeted because the county budget office has begun using metrics in reviewing the work of supervisors, taking a look at those deemed to be supervising too few workers relative to a set ratio. But that didn't take into account the fact that the supervisors in the office don't just supervise but have court caseloads, too, according to Golbert and others.

So, he made his case. And Preckwinkle found it to be "compelling," according to her spokesman. So the layoffs were reversed in the final version of the budget approved today.

Some of the money came from assuming higher turnover rates elsewhere in Evans' office. Another chunk came from fringe-benefit savings. Furlough days are not now in the mix like they are in the Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown's office, but they may come back after bargaining with labor unions.

Overall, the county budget as approved includes $158 million of spending cuts, including $51 million from not filling payroll vacancies, $25 million from laying off 339 people, and $82 million from devices such as a pay freeze and furlough days.

On the revenue side, the county bumped up its estimated take of federal funds by $22 million and projected $5.4 million in added Medicaid payments by enrolling more people in its CountyCare system. There's also the county's $5.45 million share of a tax-increment financing surplus declared by the city.

"This is not the budget I wanted," Preckwinkle told commissioners after the vote. But governing is "a collaborative process." Yes it is. And in this case, the guardian's office more or less got taken care of without that soda-pop tax.

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