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Cook County Board approves budget with 321 layoffs

Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Six weeks after repealing the controversial soda tax, the Cook County Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve a scaled-back $5.2 billion budget for next year that will lay off 321 employees.

Dozens of employees lined up in the board room before the vote, testifying for about 90 minutes about how the job losses would affect their lives. Two speakers broke down in tears, and one begged commissioners for a reprieve.

In the end, though, their pleas were of no avail. Commissioners voted for the budget 17-0, and people will start losing jobs early next month.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle appeared upset during the comments and called the spending plan approved Tuesday the “hardest budget since my first year in office.” That was 2011, when the board voted for a budget that led to the layoffs about 450 county employees just a couple of months after she took office.

“Laying off more than 300 of our hardworking and dedicated employees is extremely difficult,” Preckwinkle said. “Behind every layoff there is a person, and often a family with bills to pay. You heard from some of those people today, and it was heartbreaking.”

And hours later, the public official whose office was hit hardest by the job cuts said he is “considering our legal options,” questioning whether the board can dictate how to spend money.

This time last year, Preckwinkle won approval for a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages after breaking a rare tie vote. Retailers started charging the tax on Aug. 2, after it was delayed by a court challenge waged by store owners.

Public backlash was immense and fueled by a multimillion-dollar Can the Tax campaign waged by the beverage industry. Feeling the pressure, the board voted Oct. 1 in favor of repeal, months before the seat of Preckwinkle and every board member will on the March primary ballot.

The pop tax expires Dec. 1 at the start of the county’s fiscal budget year. That left Preckwinkle and commissioners struggling to plug a $200.6 million hole in next year’s budget.

Commissioners held weeks of budget hearings but didn’t come up with a comprehensive plan to plug the budget hole. Last week, Preckwinkle proposed cutting $158 million in spending, counting on higher revenues than initially anticipated and putting off some big purchases to close the rest of the gap.

Preckwinkle’s plan called for laying off 425 people and purging more than 1,000 vacant jobs from the county’s books. Last-minute negotiations that weren’t finished until Tuesday morning dropped the job cuts total to 321, with the elimination of 1,017 vacancies.

Those changes were made possible by deciding to take more time to fill some jobs and counting on money saved by not paying health care and pension benefits to people who would be laid off.

That spared 51 sergeants who oversee jail bailiffs, 22 staff in the Public Guardian’s Office, 17 Sheriff’s Department civilians who conduct professional responsibility training and enforcement for the sheriff, 12 sheriff’s officers who patrol unincorporated areas and two supervisors in the Adult Probation Department.

But the offices of Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Evans and Sheriff Tom Dart are still being hit hard, with Evans slated to lay off 156 employees and Dart to issue 100 pink slips. The Health and Hospitals System will lose 34 employees, most of them licensed practical nurses.

Fifteen people who work in areas that Preckwinkle controls will lose their jobs, as will eight workers for the Board of (Tax) Review, five for the assessor’s office and three for the clerk’s office.

Late Tuesday, Evans issued a statement calling the layoffs in his office “unprecedented.” He also took issue with the authority of the board to control how he spends money allocated to his operations. “As a result, we are considering our legal options, and we expect to say more on this matter early next week," he said in his statement.

Spared from layoffs: the offices of state’s attorney and public defender. And Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown is avoiding layoffs by getting workers to take unpaid furlough days, in part through an agreement with the Teamsters Union.

Some layoff notices have already been sent out, county Budget Director Tanya Anthony said. The last day of work for laid-off nonunion employees will be Dec. 8, she said. Union employees will work through Jan. 5.

Preckwinkle and commissioners said they were working to eliminate middle managers in offices that have too many and avoid harming front-line services, but that distinction meant little to those affected.

“I come before you today, a young mother of two boys,” said Amy Carioscia, a 19-year county employee who now is a clerk in the juvenile probation division, where 36 support staff face layoffs. “My husband was laid off earlier this year.

“I ask you today to please reconsider your decision,” she added, pausing as she shed tears. “Because I’ve been at the county for 19 ½ years and never woke up and thought I’d have to stand before you today to defend my job. I’ve always been a dedicated employee who’s never said no, and here I have to beg for my job.”

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat who voted against the pop tax repeal and played a lead role in putting together the last-minute changes that reduced the number of layoffs, said he was concerned that the remaining job cuts could put the county in “legal jeopardy” for not providing adequate services as required under court agreements.

And he lamented the pain the layoffs would cause. “The people should really wonder what kind of government we are when we are laying off this many people at this time of year,” he said, referring to the upcoming holidays. “The people losing their jobs will never, never find a better job than the one they’ve lost.”

But Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat who helped lead the successful soda tax repeal effort that led to the job cuts, called it “a difficult budget at a difficult time” and said that “no one takes any joy” in its passage. But the county has “an obligation to keep the doors open and the lights on ... and keep the county affordable,” he added.

Preckwinkle has in the past called laying off employees the most difficult part of her job, and the reasons why were apparent during the public testimony, when one speaker also noted the upcoming holidays and called her “Scrooge.”

During her seven-year tenure, she has managed to cut the county workforce significantly, but mostly through attrition.

County payroll records maintained by the Tribune show that in August, the county employed 22,190 workers — 1,685 fewer than in August 2010, which was four months before Preckwinkle was first elected. The payroll is now set to shrink some more.

Twitter @ReporterHal

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