With the Cook County Board less than two weeks from its Nov. 30 deadline to pass a budget, a key commissioner is proposing five new taxes today.
Cook County sues itself in budget war
(Crain’s) — In a bizarre twist to Cook County’s budget woes, the county’s public defender on Tuesday announced that he is suing County Board President Todd Stroger in a bid to get needed funding for the office.
A suit filed by Public Defender Edwin Burnette contends that the office is unable to fulfill its constitutional task to represent the indigent because of layoffs, hiring freezes and other steps ordered by Mr. Stroger and the board. It asks a third unit of county government — a circuit court — to order the reinstatement and reimbursement of all office personnel, and to mandate other actions to ensure “the independence and autonomy of the office.”
An attorney for Mr. Stroger and the co-defendants in the case, presidential chief of staff Lance Tyson and comptroller Joseph Fratto, termed the lawsuit "ridiculous."
Burt Odelson said if the public defender doesn't like his budget, "he should have come to the board like the state's attorney did and lobby" for more money.
Something Lance Tyson calls ridiculous
"You don't file lawsuits to ask for more appropriations," Mr. Odelson said. "That's not the way our democracy is based."
Last year, when Mr. Stroger unveiled proposed double-digit spending cuts throughout county government, Mr. Burnette said his office would be able to comply. Mr. Burnette was appointed public defender by Mr. Stroger’s father, John Stroger, who left office two years ago after suffering a stroke.
But Mr. Burnette then “did not recognize the full consequences of Mr. Stroger’s game plan on his office,” his attorney, William Hooks, said at a press conference announcing the suit.
The suit contends that a staff of about 435 assistant public defenders is handling 126,474 felony cases for approximately 112,000 poor people accused of crimes, giving it a workload 60% above national standards. While the office budget has been cut 26% in the past three years, Mr. Stroger has hired or promoted friends and political supporters for jobs paying $200,000 or more, Mr. Hooks said.
Mr. Hooks said the office must be kept separate from normal budget give-and-take because it has a unique, specified role that cannot legally be shortchanged.
Mr. Burnette did not attend the press conference, but Mr. Hooks was accompanied by the head of the union local that represents most office workers and which joined in the suit.
Kulmeet Galhotra, president of AFSCME Local 3315, said the office “has not hired a new attorney since June, 2006.” While about a dozen laid-off lawyers were recalled to work, attrition has cut the number of assistant public defenders from 465 at the beginning of last year to 430 to 440 now, Mr. Galhotra said.
Mr. Burnette said the court has named him a special Cook County state’s attorney in the case. That means his fees will be paid by the public until the case is resolved
Maldonado the deciding vote
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and his staff spent the weekend trying to persuade the county's 27 other elected officials to stand with him Monday in support of his controversial plan to raise taxes to finance county government operations.
He got six.
But even those six weren't biting when asked if their position means they support Stroger's plan to hike the sales, gasoline and parking taxes to raise about $890 million by 2009.
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, State's Attorney Richard Devine, Recorder Gene Moore and a representative of Sheriff Tom Dart would only say they support finding some way to balance the budget so they don't have to cut any more from their offices.
Also standing behind Stroger were county Commissioners Jerry Butler (D-Chicago) and Deborah Sims (D-Chicago).
Most of the county board has been adamant that Stroger's tax plan won't fly, but Stroger is standing firm on it, especially his proposal to hike the county portion of the sales tax by 2 percentage points - from .75 percent to 2.75 percent.
Stroger challenged his critics to either "do what's right" and "pay the piper" or come up with a tax plan of their own.
A swing vote on Stroger's tax plan comes from Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago), who is against the sales tax hike.