Alvarez rejects calls for Cook budget cuts, compromise

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez threw a wrench into the Cook County budget process Tuesday by rejecting a 10 percent cut for her office, leading President Toni Preckwinkle to accuse her of “reneging” on a deal made weeks ago.

In budget hearings before the county board, Alvarez said such extensive cuts would be “catastrophic for the victims of crime” and cut “deeply, deeply into vital services that the people of this county cannot do without.” Preckwinkle lashed back, pointing out the 10 percent cut asked of Alvarez was the smallest figure of any elected official, with most meeting a request for 16 percent cuts across the board. Preckwinkle said she felt Alvarez was going back on a budget compromise reached weeks ago.

“Absolutely not,” Alvarez told the county board. “I never agreed to the 10 percent cut. I submitted a 5.5 percent cut.”

The state’s attorney’s office worked under a $98 million budget last year and submitted a request for $93 million for the 2011 budget, which has to be passed by the end of the month. Preckwinkle came back with a demand Alvarez cut her budget to $88.4 million and clearly thought Alvarez was on board with that.

Preckwinkle said the 10 percent figure was submitted and agreed upon by Public Defender A.C. Cunningham Jr. and that Alvarez should be held to the same cuts.

“We thought frankly that we had an agreement from them, that they would cut their budget 10 percent,” Preckwinkle said. “We were disappointed this week to discover that the agreement that we thought was in place appears to have unraveled.”

“We can’t compare my office to the public defender’s,” Alvarez told the board. “Our offices are not equal.”

She added that the state’s attorney has a much more extensive staff of investigators than the public defender, and that if they cut administrative staff in half, “I don’t know how we could function.”

Alvarez’s formal opening statement was full of gloom and doom, saying 10 percent cuts would jeopardize child-abuse cases by cutting staffing at the Children’s Advocacy Center and would extend the run of murder cases as they move ever more slowly through the judicial system.

Preckwinkle countered that her office had made recommendations that would allow the state’s attorney to “keep every single attorney they have,” but cut the number of investigators and administrators and shift costs for defending medical-malpractice suits to the Health & Hospitals System.

Preckwinkle said she would press that agenda with the county board. “We’ve made a case for our budget,” she said. “We’ll see what the response is.”

The board seemed divided in response. Democratic Chicago commissioners Earlean Collins and Deborah Sims seemed sympathetic to Alvarez. Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider said Alvarez should cut her ratio of attorneys to support staff from 2-to-1 to the 4-to-1 figure in the public defender’s office.

Elmwood Park Republican Commissioner Peter Silvestri straddled both sides, saying the board would never agree to farming out legal work to private firms — as Alvarez threatened would be necessary with the cuts — but adding that in these hard times it was perhaps necessary to “overburden our support staff.”

Chicago Democratic commissioners Jesus Garcia and John Frichey, meanwhile, said they felt ambushed by Alvarez’s sudden reversal on what most thought was a budget compromise.

Garcia said Alvarez’s staff “haven’t given us one inkling ... there was a problem here,” before her appearance before the board.

Alvarez said a proposed closing of suburban bond courts on weekends would offer her office little savings, adding, “It would probably be more of a cost saving for the sheriff than for us.”