Preckwinkle, Alvarez wrangle over 10 percent cuts
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporterldonovan@suntimes.com February 8, 2011 3:38PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
An angry Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday accused the county’s top prosecutor of “reneging on a deal” to cut her budget.
For a week now, Preckwinkle has been saying publicly that she and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez had negotiated a deal to cut the prosecutor’s budget by 10 percent.
But Alvarez said during a budget hearing Tuesday they made no such pact and that the cuts would mean 180 layoffs in her office and slow the wheels of justice.
“A 10 percent reduction for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office cuts deeply — deeply — into vital services that the people of this county cannot do without,” Alvarez told county commissioners during the start of the budget hearing.
Court reporters who record grand jury proceedings, victim-witness “specialists” who aid and help crime victims navigate the justice system and 58 assistant state’s attorney’s would be shown the door, she said.
“A Cook County assistant state’s attorney not only prosecutes a crime, he or she prevents it by working to ensure that violent offenders are removed the streets where they can no longer do harm to others,” Alvarez said later. “The latest proposed cut in the state’s attorney’s office, greater than all its recent predecessors, goes too far.”
Preckwinkle ordered 16 percent cuts countywide to plug a $487 million deficit, but relented last week after Alvarez, Sheriff Tom Dart and Public Defender Abishi Cunningham publicly pushed back.
In the end, Preckwinkle ordered 12 percent cuts for Dart’s office, while the state’s attorney and the public defender’s offices were to trim spending by 10 percent.
Preckwinkle listened to some of Alvarez’s pitch to commissioners in the downtown County Board room, before her staff corralled reporters in to a nearby hallway.
“We thought, frankly, we had an agreement from them and they would cut their budget 10 percent,” Preckwnkle said, saying she’s frustrated the deal apparently “unraveled” in recent days.
“The one person frankly to make the least cuts in their budget is reneging on the deal,” Preckwinkle said, noting that most departments were held to the ordered 16 percent.
Preckwinkle said her staff offered suggestions on cuts, including support staff, but never directed her to cut assistant state’s attorneys.
“She has chosen to propose cuts that involve significant layoffs of lawyers — that’s not the only way in which she could reach her goal of 10 percent,” Preckwinkle said.
In a January e-mail from Raymond Balcarcel in the state’s attorney’s office to Peter Kocerka in the county’s budget office, Balcarcel lists the state’s attorney’s “bottomline” as $88.3 million — the same number that Preckwinkle’s says the two sides agreed on.
But that e-mail merely shows how much county funding the state’s attorney would get after a 10 percent cut, said state’s attorney spokeswoman Sally Daly.
“That e-mail in no way shape or form implies we agreed to a 10 percent cut,” Daly said later in the day.
During meetings with Preckwinkle’s office in recent months, Alvarez offered to cut her budget 5 ½ percent.
County commissioners, who are working toward a Feb. 28 deadline to pass a $3.1 billion spending plan, were scratching their heads over the she said-she said fight.
“We have two versions of the facts being put forth by two respected elected officials. Common sense says at the end of the day, somebody’s credibility is going to be called in to question,” said Commissioner John Fritchey, who like Preckwinkle and Alvarez is a Democrat.
Commissioner Peter Silvestri, a northwest suburban Republican, believes most commissioners will stand with Preckwinkle.
“I think the will of the commissioners is that she should cut 10 percent but save the lawyers,” Silvestri said after the budget hearing.
County Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy, a southwest suburban Democrat, said she’s taking a wait-and-see attitude, hoping Alvarez can more clearly delineate what she can live with.
“I don’t know if 10 percent is too high or not too high. I’m going to let her figure out what she can cut and whatever she can cut, I know she’ll do the right thing,” Murphy said.
The showdown adds a new element of theater to the otherwise dry budget process. Preckwinkle and Dart had to mend fences after Preckwinkle ordered him and Alvarez to present to her budgets for their offices with the cuts or she’d wield the budget ax. Dart responded by saying, in jest, that perhaps Preckwinkle could cut his entire budget and he could patrol the county by bicycle and handle the guarding of the jail and city and suburban courthouses on his own.