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Foxx pleads for budget boost to expand gun crime unit, victim services; Rocha touts crackdown on bill collections

Wednesday, July 21, 2021
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin



Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Comm. John Daley (D-11) during a preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday





Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx asked commissioners on Tuesday to fund a boost to her office’s payroll next year, saying the crush of cases facing prosecutors as the courts return to pre-pandemic capacity will be “unlike anything we’ve seen in the history of Cook County.”

Specifically, Foxx said she’s looking to expand her office’s Gun Crime Strategies Unit, which works with local police in high-crime districts. She also wants to beef up programs that support witnesses of crimes, vacate wrongful convictions and defend the county from lawsuits.

The state’s attorney’s office netted 39 new full-time positions during the 2021 budget year — mostly due to increased funding from outside grants — giving it about 1,241 positions. Officials said the office now has 121 vacancies, 75 of which have candidates moving through the job pipeline.

Related: Fresh off reelection, Foxx to defend growing budget as other offices face cuts

But the office will likely need more bodies, including attorneys and support staffers, as the court system’s backlog of cases adds to the “burden of an already taxed criminal justice system and an already taxed state’s attorney’s office,” she said.

“This reopening and its demand on the court system will be unlike anything we’ve seen in the history of Cook County,” Foxx told commissioners during the second day of preliminary budget hearings on Tuesday. “So we are particularly grateful for the support of this board…as it relates to our budget, because quite honestly we will need every dollar that has been allocated.”

Foxx’s staff has yet to submit a budget application for the 2022 fiscal year — the requests are due at the end of this week — but county budget officials have indicated they’re targeting a 4 percent expansion for her office’s bottom line.

“I’m going to shoot my shot,” Foxx said when asked about her budget request. “We would have three attorneys in every courtroom, because the volume is just that significant — and that’s just in dealing with the cases in the criminal bureau.”

Her plea followed similar comments from Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, who said during his budget hearing on Monday that he will ask for at least 40 new positions next year to address “significant caseload issues” that have built during the pandemic-driven court slowdown.

Related: Mitchell to ask for more public defenders after pandemic ‘slowed down the process of justice’

But Foxx also said she wants more funding to expand her Gun Crime Strategies Unit, which she said would allow her office to help tamp down the surge in shootings gripping the county. She called the unit, which stations prosecutors at five police district stations on the South and West Side of Chicago, an “effective tool” to embed with local communities and more aggressively prosecute gun trafficking.

Foxx has credited the unit for drops in crime and hikes in prosecutions of habitual shooters in the five districts between 2016 and 2019.

“2020 and 2021 have proven to be particularly challenging, which is why I wholeheartedly believe we have to double down on our efforts with gun crime strategies,” Foxx said Tuesday. “We need to expand into other areas of the city…and not to be lost is the work that we need to do in the suburbs, particularly in the south suburbs.

Foxx added that she is looking to grow her office’s “post-conviction” group, a “small staff” whose work defending against people trying to overturn convictions she described as “very labor-intensive.” Conversely, she also said she and her team “need more bodies” to staff up the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which works to vacate wrongful convictions like those tied to disgraced former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.

Finally, the state’s attorney said she hopes to add staff to her office’s Victim Witness Assistance Unit, which coordinates resources for people who come forward to give information about crimes.

“It takes a significant amount of bravery…to point the finger at the person who’s caused harm,” Foxx said. “So we want to make sure we can adequately protect and provide the resources to them, because none of this is possible without people in the community coming forward.”

Health system cracking down on bill collections

Separately on Tuesday, commissioners spent about an hour grilling leaders of the $3.6 billion Cook County Health system on a range of topics, from state funding reimbursements to the county’s response to COVID-19.

Officials spent little time discussing the health system’s 2022 budget, but health system CEO Israel Rocha described recent efforts to tighten the county’s bill collection and other revenue reporting processes. Health system leaders have faced pressure on the topic since 2018, when a watchdog reported that the county missed out on up to $165 million over three years because of clerical errors and management issues.

Rocha said Tuesday that he oversaw creation of a new Chief Revenue Officer position this year to "focus on ensuring that we improve our coding, billing and collection process."

M. Hill Hammock, who chairs the Cook County Health Board of Directors, revealed during the hearing that irregular revenue reporting was part of the reason why the board ousted former health system Chief Financial Officer Ekerete Akpan in February 2020.

“That occurred at the beginning of COVID, which was awkward, but we brought in a seasoned interim” in Chief Business Officer Andrea Gibson “to control all that,” Hammock said. He said Gibson “brought a tremendous project management ability to the issue.”

Board of Review sidelines staffer under investigation

The three elected commissioners of the Cook County Board of Review also appeared before commissioners in the virtual hearing. After running through a brief summary of the property tax appeal body’s operations from the past year, Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3) addressed what he called “the elephant in the room:” last week’s revelation by the Sun-Times that a Board of Review employee was being investigated by the FBI for allegedly accepting bribes in return for tax assessment breaks.

Rogers said leaders of the review board “isolated that individual and removed all access that he had to our systems, and he has been placed on administrative leave.”

The commissioner added that the board is “in the process of seeking outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation to see the nature and extent of his illegal activities.”

“Obviously, that conduct is something we don’t condone,” Rogers said. “It’s abhorrent conduct.”

Board of Review Comm. Michael Cabonargi (D-2) chimed in to call the employee’s behavior “disgusting and insulting to the hard-working people of the Board of Review.”

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