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Cook County commissioners get behind Preckwinkle's budget cuts

Friday, November 17, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

A majority of commissioners have put their names on Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s plan to plug a $200 million hole in next year’s budget, in part by laying off hundreds of employees working for Sheriff Tom Dart and Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Evans.

Preckwinkle on Friday unveiled her revised budget-cutting proposal, which listed 15 of the board’s 17 commissioners as co-sponsors in advance of Tuesday’s vote on her 2018 spending plan for next year. The fresh round of cuts became needed after the board repealed the county’s controversial soda pop tax, losing the money that would have brought in next year.

Since she first proposed the budget cuts on Monday, Preckwinkle worked with commissioners to refine her initial plan. Dart and Evans, though, continue to push back hard.

“I applaud the commissioners for their collaboration on the amendment, as well as the separately elected officials, county staff and the public for their input, and look forward to passage of our budget Tuesday,” Preckwinkle said in a statement.

Her plan calls for cutting about $158 million in spending, while relying on rosier revenue projections and shifting money around county funds to close the rest of the shortfall. The optimistic income estimates include more money from the federal government to care for poor people at the Health and Hospitals System, a bigger influx from the city’s surplus special taxing district funds, better tax collection, more investment income and the sale of some medical equipment.

Instead of the 592 layoffs Preckwinkle first proposed Monday, her revised plan now calls for letting 425 county employees go — most of them middle management for Dart and Evans. The sheriff would have to lay off 181 people as part of a $53 million budget cut, and the chief judge would have to deliver pink slips to 180 people to help slash nearly $24 million.

Preckwinkle contends the offices of sheriff and chief judge have more supervisors than necessary, that she’s trying to bring them more in line with “best practices” for the number of employees per supervisor, she said earlier this week.

The Health and Hospitals System would see 34 layoffs, and Preckwinkle would have 15 in the offices under her direct control. More than 1,000 currently vacant positions across all offices and departments would be removed from the books too.

Dart’s office chafed at Preckwinkle’s proposal, saying in a statement that they “were not discussed nor negotiated (and) are made in reckless disregard for public safety and evidence a gross misunderstanding of the scope of responsibilities of this office.”

“Sheriff Dart strenuously objects to this amendment and urges county commissioners to prioritize public safety by addressing the scope, extent and disparity of these cuts,” the statement said.

Evans in a statement said he was “disappointed to hear that a proposal would lead to 180 layoffs” in his office, adding that he would rather achieve targeted cost savings by having employees take unpaid furlough days.

Preckwinkle has agreed to allow Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown reach her target with furloughs. The difference, however, is that Brown has presented a letter from affected unions agreeing to the furloughs, while Evans has not.

The proposed cuts come after commissioners voted 15-2 last month to repeal a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages. That Preckwinkle-backed tax, which took effect Aug. 2, triggered a public backlash fueled by a multimillion-dollar Can the Tax campaign waged by the beverage industry. It expires Dec. 1, the first day of the county’s fiscal 2018 year.

“I think the amendment represents a real victory for the residents of Cook County and working-class families, and it doesn’t devastate public health and public safety,” said Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat who was a leading proponent of repeal.

But Boykin nevertheless said he was concerned that the amendment as submitted Friday called for laying off 12 front-line officers in the sheriff’s police department and added he “will not vote for a budget that lays off sheriff’s police, as opposed to supervisors.”

“It’s still a work in progress, it’s still a moving target,” Boykin said. “There’s still some negotiations going on, back and forth, and so I think that document you see there might change a little more.”

Making changes might be difficult, though. Finance Committee Chairman John Daley — who controls the budget-approval process — has indicated he won’t consider further substantive amendments to the budget on Tuesday.

The two commissioners who aren’t listed as co-sponsors are two Chicago Democrats. Commissioner John Fritchey was recuperating from hip replacement surgery, but Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — Preckwinkle’s floor leader and a potential candidate for mayor — said he had reservations and has yet to decide how he’ll vote.

He expressed concerns about reliance on on “cuts and layoffs to fill the county’s budget hole.”

“The Cook County Health and Hospitals System alone will see $36.5 million in cuts, and the public safety will bear the brunt of the 425 layoffs,” Garcia said. “Cuts in essential services will affect all Cook County residents, but I am afraid they will fall disproportionately on the poorest communities.”

Twitter @ReporterHal

RELATED: Preckwinkle expects only 'modest changes' to her plan to cut $200 million in spending »

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

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