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Two Cook County branch courthouses could close in budget cuts that followed pop tax repeal

Thursday, April 26, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Two small branch courthouses and a juvenile detention center building would close under a long-sought budget settlement between Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans.

The proposed deal also calls for nearly 2,400 workers in departments controlled by the chief judge to take 10 unpaid days off work or face layoffs if the unions representing most of them don’t agree. Judges would not have to take the furlough days because their salaries are paid by the state, not the county.

Details of the agreement were included in a “memorandum of settlement” that Evans sent to judges and employees under his jurisdiction Tuesday, and were later presented to county commissioners. Attorneys for Preckwinkle and Evans are expected to finalize the deal in court Friday.

The plan would close branch courtrooms at 2452 W. Belmont Ave. and 155 W. 51st St. by September. The preliminary felony hearings and misdemeanor cases heard there would be shifted to other county courthouses.

The settlement also calls for closing a building at the detention center by July 1. Funding for 22 youth development and recreation specialists would be eliminated as a result, but county commissioners were told those reductions could be made by eliminating currently vacant positions. The number of people held in the facility has declined in recent years as a result of justice reform efforts.

Evans had to cut costs after last year's repeal of the controversial pop tax, which took more than $200 million out of Preckwinkle’s proposed budget. The County Board approved a final plan that called for Evans to lay off more than 155 workers — nearly half of the 321 employees targeted for dismissal in the budget. But he went to court to block the layoffs.

The chief judge contended that the board could not dictate to him how to spend money given to the offices that he controls. He had sought to cut costs through furlough days, the closing of one branch court and other spending cuts.

In December, Lake County Circuit Judge Mitchell L. Hoffman agreed with Evans in a ruling that put the layoffs on hold.

That ruling sent Preckwinkle, Evans and their attorneys back to the bargaining table, resulting in this week’s proposed settlement.

The court and detention center closings would save nearly $1.5 million. More than $8.5 million more would be saved by counting on additional state funding and shifting some behavioral health care services from contractors to the county Health and Hospitals System. The unpaid days off or layoffs would close the rest of the gap, which was initially pegged at nearly $24 million.

Even if the settlement is made final Friday, the controversy might not end.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which represents about 1,000 probation officers, social service caseworkers and administrative staff working for the chief judge — contended that before unpaid days are required or layoffs commence, Evans must first negotiate with the unions involved.

"The chief judge cannot take any action without first negotiating with the unions that represent employees in his office,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said in a statement. “AFSCME will keep pressing for solutions that protect public services and jobs, and that don’t force county employees alone to bear the brunt of the budget hole."

A spokesman for the chief judge said he could not comment on the case because of Supreme Court rules barring judges from talking about pending litigation. A spokeswoman at the Illinois attorney general’s office, which is representing Evans, also declined to comment.

Preckwinkle also declined to discuss the case.

“Until all parties sign off on the final settlement, this remains pending litigation, and I cannot comment further,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday. “We’ve been operating with the understanding that settlement negotiations are confidential, and we intend to abide by that confidentiality, even if the chief judge does not.”

Twitter @ReporterHal

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