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More than 300 Cook County employees will lose jobs to balance budget

Monday, November 20, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Andy Grimm and Rachel Hinton

Last-minute negotiations brokered deals to save at least 85 jobs in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Public Guardian’s office ahead of a vote Tuesday to plug a $200 million shortfall created by the repeal of a controversial soda tax.

County board members will vote on a amendment to the budgets for the Sheriff and Guardian’s offices after intense lobbying by Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Sheriff Tom Dart, the sole deviations from a list of targeted cuts handed down last week by board President Toni Preckwinkle. All told, 330 county employees will lose their jobs under terms of the budget, said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, who has been leading negotiations on the amendment.

The release of Preckwinkle’s budget adjustment on Friday touched off a frenzied 72 hours of back-and-forth that had wound down by Monday evening, said Suffredin, who had become a defacto point man for Dart and Evans as they tried to make their case.

“I think we’re there,” Suffredin said shortly after 5 p.m. Monday. “I think until Friday, people were in denial that the $200 million [that needed to be cut] was real money.”

The Budget Office on Monday afternoon announced that 22 positions that had been targeted for layoffs in the Guardian’s office would be spared thanks to savings from 10 days of furloughs for non-union court employees. Other cuts outlined by Preckwinkle’s office will remain in place, Suffredin said.

Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for Preckwinkle, said the decision to preserve Guardian jobs comes after members from the office “made a compelling case over the weekend and today to roll back the planned layoffs and maintain service levels.”

Late Monday, Dart’s policy chief, Cara Smith, said the sheriff still was working to build a “consensus” on cuts mandated by Preckwinkle.

The court system and sheriff’s office bore the brunt of the cuts instituted after the repeal last month of a 1-cent per ounce tax on sweetened beverages, following an outcry from county residents and well-funded resistance from beverage companies.

Recalculating the costs of fringe benefits produced enough savings for Dart’s office to spare all but 63 employees, after being slated to lose more than 200 jobs.

Even with the 22 posts spared in the Public Guardian’s office, the courts will lose a total of 63 positions, and will close the court branch at Belmont and Western Avenue in Chicago.

On Monday morning, Evans bemoaned the “unintended consequences” of Preckwinkle’s mandated cuts, after a speech at a South Side church where he had touted the success of an initiative to reduce the use of cash bond in criminal court. As late as noon, Evans was holding out hope the courts would be spared any staffing cuts in exchange for all employees — union and non-union — agreeing to take 10 furlough days.

Preckwinkle’s budget “included cuts I thought were cuts to the bone,” Evans said, suggesting staffing cuts could open the county up to lawsuits by compromising minimum staffing needs, and jeopardize the success of bond court changes he credited with reducing the population of the jail by 1,000 inmates in just two months.

But furlough negotiations apparently went nowhere, Suffredin said, adding he expected little change to the budget amendment before the finance committee vote on Monday.

Dart announced on Monday the layoff of 25 high-ranking staff positions — the entire commander rank — at the Cook County Jail, which has seen the inmate population drop sharply over the last two years from a daily peak of around 11,000 detainees, Smith said.

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