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updated: 2/10/2011 12:48 AM

Cook public defender joins Alvarez in balking against budget cuts

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  • Cook County Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham Jr.

    Cook County Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham Jr.


The Cook County public defender has joined State's Attorney Anita Alvarez in opposing cuts proposed by county board President Toni Preckwinkle, raising the possibility the 2011 budget could unravel within three weeks of the deadline for passage.

Public Defender Abishi Cunningham Jr. is slated to face a finance committee budget hearing on Tuesday, and up to now has been believed to be in agreement with cuts proposed in Preckwinkle's 2011 budget. In fact, Preckwinkle said Tuesday, when first confronted with Alvarez's public objections, that Cunningham had proposed the 10 percent cut as agreeable, compared with the 16 percent cuts most other departments were facing.

Yet, in a memo sent Monday to "all employees" in the public defender's office, and obtained by the Daily Herald, Cunningham wrote unequivocally: "I wish to make clear that we have never stated, in any fashion, that this office could continue to perform its constitutional duties to the increasing number of residents below the poverty line in Cook County with a 10 percent cut in the 2010 budget."

Cunningham's top assistant, Patrick Reardon, said he wasn't going to get into the "semantics" of whether Cunningham had "agreed" to or proposed the cuts. "We have complied with a request made by the president," Reardon said, to cut the public defender's budget 10 percent from about $58 million to just over $51 million. "That doesn't mean we agree that's a good idea."

"The fact is, the public defender submitted a budget proposal that reflected a 10 percent reduction," said Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves.

"The public defender reports to the president," Neves added, unlike the elected state's attorney, "and will be held to the 10 percent cut."

According to Reardon, Cunningham's memo was put out in response to staff concerns about how the budget was being cut without actually eliminating any positions.

Reardon said there are no "line-item changes" to the 2011 budget, but instead the 10 percent reduction is accounted for in the "turnover rate," or the money saved in the time it takes to replace a vacated position over weeks, months or not at all.

"It can be several thousand dollars, several million if you have a big personnel budget," Reardon said.

Reardon said that accounting was made by Preckwinkle's financial staff, and that Cunningham intends to warn the county board of "repercussions" should the turnover-rate savings not meet the expected reductions.

"Despite the fact that the budget looks just like last year's budget, there's a number there at the bottom that won't work," Reardon said. "...I frankly think there will be significant problems if we have to cut 10 percent of our budget."

Or, as Cunningham stated in his staff memo: "We will continue to press our constitutional mission and the need to adequately fund that mission."

That could gain purchase with commissioners like McCook's Jeffrey Tobolski and Chicago's Earlean Collins, both Democrats, who have taken issue with some of the bookkeeping in the budget proposal, in shifting duties and positions between departments so that all can meet reduction targets.

Yet Bartlett Republican Timothy Schneider and Chicago Democrat John Daley, finance committee chairman, both said they expect Preckwinkle's budget to hold and the cuts to be made, beginning with Alvarez.

"The president has been adamant from the beginning that no one is alone and no one is absolved" from making cuts, Neves said. She said she did not expect it to scuttle the process.

There were no signs of defections in other departments, not even that of Sheriff Tom Dart, who was the last to agree to a compromise cut of 12.5 percent just before the budget was submitted to the county board.