After months of negotiations, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle’s team and Chief Judge Timothy Evans are close to signing off on a settlement that Evans said would avert drastic layoffs included in the 2018 budget. But that solution would include closure of two branch courts and a section of the Juvenile Detention Center, and is already drawing pushback from the union representing Evans’ employees.
If approved by both sides, the deal would end a monthslong court stalemate spurred by the repeal of the county’s sweetened beverage tax.
Commissioners blew a $200 million hole in this year’s budget when they voted to repeal the tax last October. It led to a fraught budget process where Evans, who runs one of the biggest offices in the county, suggested 20 furlough days and court closures to meet his share of cuts. County budget officials said his offer came up short and submitted their own layoffs – 161 non-judicial, mostly senior employees.
Evans responded with a lawsuit soon after the budget passed. In it, he accused Preckwinkle and the board of violating “the constitutional separation of powers by infringing on the court’s exclusive authority to decide whom it will employ or terminate from its employment.”
In a Tuesday letter to employees and judges obtained by The Daily Line, Evans laid out the brokered solution. One is furlough days: non-union court personnel will take 10 unpaid furlough days by Nov. 30. “Union personnel will be asked to vote on whether to take 10 furlough days, and for unions that do not accept the furlough plan, layoffs will occur as outlined in union contracts,” he said.
Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, which represents roughly 1,000 employees in the Chief Judge’s office, said Evans “cannot take any action without first negotiating with the unions that represent employees in his office. AFSCME will keep pressing for solutions that protect public services and jobs, and that don’t force county employees alone to bear the brunt of the budget hole.”
“Threatened cuts could jeopardize operations throughout the county court system, as well as probation services that are necessary to monitor offenders and fight crime. This very dire situation is the result of the failure of the Cook County Board to support the revenue measures needed to fund county services,” Lindall said.
The cost to the county is roughly $11.1 million. $2.5 million is for capital costs. The rest covers various salary, pension, and upfront costs of some major operational changes, including closing branch court locations at Belmont and Western and 51st and Wentworth.
Evans’ office will also terminate a lease at its Walnut Probation Office, shut down one of its centers at the Junior Temporary Detention Center by July 1, and eliminate 21 Youth Development Specialist positions and four mortgage foreclosure positions.
Asked whether the leaked framework was a good deal for the county and what its impact would be on the already-strained budget going forward, Preckwinkle stuck to her script.
“We have negotiated in good faith with the Office of the Chief Judge over the past several months. Until all parties sign off on the final settlement, this remains pending litigation and I cannot comment further,” she said, and chided, “We’ve been operating with the understanding that settlement negotiations are confidential, and we intend to abide by that confidentiality even if the chief judge does not.”
“You’re lawyered up,” one reporter quipped.
“I’m well-briefed,” she replied.
Commissioners were briefed on the case in a closed committee meeting on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the full board gave their go-ahead to settle when the two sides meet again in Lake County Court on Friday.
A spokesperson for Preckwinkle would not respond to follow up questions about how the settlement would proceed at the board or its budget impact, citing pending litigation.
Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13), an attorney, was an early voice of concern about the future of the courts under the planned layoffs. He suggested the cost could have been much higher if both sides had gone to trial, but cautioned the deal isn’t done. “We’ll see what happens in court.”