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2 Cook County courthouses to close, employees spared layoffs under budget settlement: officials

Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Gregory Pratt

2 Cook County courthouses to close, employees spared layoffs under budget settlement: officials

Two branch courthouses in Chicago are closing as part of a settlement to resolve the budget fight that erupted last year between the County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the court system after the controversial soda tax was repealed, officials announced Wednesday.

Despite the closings, no Circuit Court of Cook County workers will face layoffs this year. But all employees will have to take 10 unpaid furlough days, a move that will save the county $6.2 million. The settlement between Preckwinkle and Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans also will close one housing unit within the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and its 22 vacant positions will be eliminated.

“This dispute was about the necessary and reasonable funding that is statutorily required for the court system. But this litigation has also established that the county board has no authority to lay off court employees,” Evans said in a statement. “The county decides the funding level for the court, and the court is best suited to decide how these funds are allocated. Moving forward, that is an important precedent.”

An exact date for closing the small branch courthouses at 2452 W. Belmont Ave. and 155 W. 51st St. has not yet been determined, a county spokesman said. The settlement says they must close by Sept. 1. The preliminary felony hearings and misdemeanor cases heard there would be shifted to other county courthouses.

The budget dispute dates to last year’s repeal of the county’s controversial penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages, a move that eliminated $200 million from Preckwinkle’s proposed spending plan. County commissioners approved a budget that called for Evans to lay off more than 150 workers — nearly half of the 321 county employees targeted for dismissal in the budget. That prompted a court challenge from Evans.

Evans had maintained that the proposed budget cuts would have hampered the court system’s ability to meet its legal requirements. He also said the county courts were being expected to shoulder a larger burden of the proposed job cuts than other agencies. Those cuts didn’t take effect while the lawsuit played out.

“As we stated when this case began, the Circuit Court of Cook County accounts for about 5 percent of the county’s operating budget, but the county board had ordered the court to bear 50 percent of the overall layoffs,” Evans said in the statement.

Judges won’t have to take the furlough days because their salaries are paid by the state, not the county.

Evans sought $41 million more in his budget. Instead, the settlement means the county court system will get $11.1 million more through a combination of new money and budget credits.

In addition to the branch courthouse closings, youth receiving behavioral health services from contractors at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center will be moved to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System by Sept. 1.

“We will continue working with all officials to ensure that all functions of the County are operating efficiently and in a fiscally responsible manner while still providing essential services to our residents,” Preckwinkle said in a statement.

Despite the spending cuts this year, Cook County officials already face a projected $82 million budget hole as they set out to craft a new plan this fall. But the current $5.2 billion budget, which expires Nov. 30, is expected to end with a $600,000 surplus, Preckwinkle’s office has said.

“As we head into more uncertain financial times, the county board has more tough decisions ahead,” Evans said. “I hope that the president and commissioners will consider all of the sacrifices the court has made and the disproportionate share of the cuts that the court was asked to take in 2018.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @royalpratt

MORE COVERAGE

Cook County Board approves budget with 321 layoffs »



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