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Official reverses stance on cuts

Thursday, December 28, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Less than a week after saying proposed cuts would be "devastating" to his office, Cook County Public Defender Ed Burnette announced Wednesday he's ready to trim the 17 percent from his budget requested by his boss, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.
 
"We have made our target. We've even gone a little bit beyond our target," Burnette said. "We've proposed some new initiatives."
 
Stroger has asked all departments and all county elected officials to cut 17 percent from their budgets to fill a $502 million gap in the 2007 budget. Stroger released a statement Tuesday criticizing officials after none complied.
 
Burnette was appointed by the board president and his budget is controlled by the president, but that didn't stop him last week from publicly complaining that a 17 percent cut would mean laying off 212 of his 550 staff lawyers.
 
The public defender's office is responsible for defending all of Cook County's criminal defendants who can't afford their own attorneys. In 2005, the office handled 384,865 criminal cases and additional appeals and civil cases, according to budget documents.
 
Burnette said Wednesday he can cut 17 percent from his 2006 budget -- or $8.9 million -- by laying off 50 lawyers, 25 other employees, foregoing some cost-of-living raises and giving all employees, including himself, a 10-day unpaid furlough.
 
The office also will consolidate some administrative functions with the county's main finance office and negotiate with private law firms to handle more defense work for free.
 
Burnette said conversations with Stroger's budget team changed his position.
 
"There are things we are considering now that we didn't have the authority to do before," Burnette said. "The 10-day furlough, for example. The president of the county board has to (sign) off on that, I can't do it. ... I work for him."
 
Burnette said the process was "dynamic" and labeled the layoffs as "potential." He said he's still looking for other cuts and hopes to avoid layoffs.
 
State's Attorney Dick Devine has warned crime will go up if he's forced to lay off prosecutors to meet a 17 percent budget cut.
 
Devine was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Stroger, but the meeting was canceled by Stroger because he fell ill, Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said.
 
Burnette said he hoped "as a taxpayer" that Devine and other officials find ways to cut their offices, but he wouldn't tell them what's best.
 


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