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After pop tax loss, Preckwinkle headed for fight over budget cuts to sheriff, chief judge

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Rebuked on a pop tax, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Monday proposed cutting $200 million through a mix of laying off midlevel managers, holding the line on raises and requiring workers to take unpaid days off.

Though she had vowed that budget cuts would be up to commissioners, a re-election-seeking Preckwinkle reversed course and got out the paring knife eight days before a county-imposed Nov. 21 deadline to put a spending plan in place.

The fine print has yet to be made public, but the outline Preckwinkle released showed the operations of Sheriff Tom Dart and Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans would be hit the hardest. Both already are pushing back, saying they haven’t agreed to the cuts.

While the budget cuts could evolve during the next week as Preckwinkle tries to round up the nine votes required for approval, at least two commissioners who led the pop tax repeal came out of a Monday briefing convinced that she is now on the right track.

“It seems to be a solid plan,” said Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican who was the main sponsor on the repeal that was approved 15-2 last month. “I’m certain that there’s going to be something that will be tweaked. That’s just normal.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Morrison added. “It’s unprecedented territory for the county government.”

Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat who also was an outspoken pop tax opponent, was even more bullish. He praised Preckwinkle for making strategic cuts that did not result in the layoffs of prosecutors, public defenders or “front-line” sheriff’s officers and jail guards.

“At the end of the day, what you have here is I think a realization that ... we didn’t need the sweetened beverage tax revenue,” Boykin said. “What you have here is a tightening of the belt, and a scalpel approach that doesn’t devastate our operations of county government, but instead allows us to maintain high-quality services as it relates to public health and public safety. And that’s the mission of the county.”

Here’s how it breaks down:

The biggest savings — $96.3 million — would come from a series of moves that includes delaying purchases of equipment; stepped-up enforcement of parking, cigarette and alcohol taxes; cutting justice program funding and a drug-school program for nonviolent offenders; and reduced spending on things like travel, postage, office supplies and printing. That figure also counts on holding the line on salary increases across the board. There would be seven unpaid days off for Circuit Court clerk union employees, and 15 furlough days for nonunion workers in the office. Salaries would have to be negotiated with multiple unions, but commissioners said there’s union buy-in on the furlough days. Nearly $50 million in savings would come from eliminating 746 currently vacant positions. Preckwinkle had already proposed axing 254 vacancies from the budget, so the total would be 1,000. An additional $51 million would be saved through hundreds of layoffs to reduce the number of midlevel managers, eliminating some programs and reducing some staffing in noncritical areas. The job cutbacks would have the biggest effect on the offices of Dart and Evans, with the sheriff facing 244 layoffs and the chief judge 222, commissioners said.

Dart runs the Cook County Jail and a police department that patrols mostly unincorporated areas, but also provides assistance to Chicago police and some suburban departments. Evans runs the court system, the probation department and the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Cara Smith, the sheriff’s policy and communications chief, said the office had yet to agree to the cuts and was concerned about their extent.

“One thing that gets lost in the mix here is that running a jail and running a police department is not like running a department store, and when we get that wrong, public safety is impacted, which we will work very, very hard not to let that happen,” Smith said. “There are unique aspects of running a very old jail that make these budget cuts even trickier.”

Evans spokesman Pat Milhizer said the chief judge had agreed to some of the non-staff cuts included in Preckwinkle’s proposal, but not the layoffs. Instead, the judge proposed 20 furlough days for all his employees.

“He does not agree to these cuts,” Milhizer said. “Chief Judge Evans said from the beginning that he wants to avoid layoffs, and that’s why he is proposing a furlough program of unpaid days off. … He’s willing to make sacrifices, he just prefers to do that through shared sacrifice.”

The county also would save about $3.6 million by consolidating technology and human resources services across several departments and offices, eliminating the “duplicative office” of inspector general at the circuit clerk’s office, and closing branch courts at 2452 W. Belmont Ave in Chicago.

Presentation of the budget-cutting blueprint is something of a turnabout for Preckwinkle, who after the pop tax repeal last month said it would be up to commissioners and other elected officials to find ways to make up for the $200.6 million that the penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages was expected to bring in next year.

The release of the proposed cuts came the same day Preckwinkle got a Democratic primary opponent in former Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti.

Still, Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan sought to portray the move as business as usual for his boss.

“The president’s office every year introduces an amendment before the budget vote,” Shuftan said. “Additionally, this year, a number of commissioners asked specifically for a road map and the assistance of the budget and finance team, who worked with the commissioners and included their input into our recommendations.”

In the cover letter to a handout given to commissioners, Preckwinkle wrote: “Some of these cuts we propose are deep, but without revenue, we are left with no other options. ... Some of the reductions can take place with dispatch; others will have to be rolled out over time and closely monitored to ensure that even as we achieve cost savings, we continue to provide the essential services our residents expect.”

Last year, Preckwinkle cast a tie-breaking vote to approve the pop tax, which did not go into effect until Aug. 2 after a lawsuit filed by store owners caused a delay. The pop tax repeal takes effect Dec. 1, the first day of the county’s 2018 budget year.

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