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Janitors, Grapes and Donuts

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Janitors, Grapes and Donuts

We continue now with our series on how cuts and layoffs are rippling through Cook County government.

So far, we’ve looked at losses in nurses, doctors, and health clinics.

Today we turn to reductions in the county’s janitorial staff.

More specifically we’re looking at what fewer janitors means for the county’s juvenile courthouse.

To do that, we visited the Public Guardian’s office, the people charged with protecting abused children and wards of the state.

Chicago Public Radio’s Ben Calhoun reports.

Todd Kooperman’s a lawyer in the Public Guardians Office in the county’s juvenile court building.

Kooperman is the kind of guy who prefers to take the stairs—which is one reason the grape bothers him.

It’s on the stairs he takes down to the courtrooms.

Kooperman: Oh there we go. That Rorschach-shaped blob on the ground is a grape that has been there for probably about six weeks now.

Kooperman says the grape is bad... so is the dark dirt puddle around it, the half-empty bottle of Pepsi next to it, and the trail of spit-out gum leading up to it.

But Kooperman says there’s bigger debris—the kind that can’t be missed if anyone’s cleaning.

Kooperman: Last week and the week before I noticed “Hey, there’s a donut.”

At first, he can’t find it, but then, one floor below the grape.

Kooperman: Oh there it is. There’s the donut.

It’s a third of a donut.

Kooperman: A glazed donut chunk.

Which doesn’t look as old as the grape, but it’s dusty and a little dried up.

Kooperman: This donut has been there for approximately two or three weeks I’d say.

Kooperman and others say they don’t expect the juvenile court building to be spotless.

But the county cancelled the cleaning contract for the building last spring.

It then told the Sheriff’s department to clean the building with its janitorial staff, which had been cut back.

Bottom line, the courthouse now has about half as many janitors as it used to—and people who work there say it’s showing.

Kooperman: This is the men’s bathroom.

Kooperman and others in the building say for a while after the cuts, there’s wasn’t soap in the bathrooms—and sometimes no toilet paper.

Then, there was bar soap, which would melt into white and gray pools of soupy mush.

These days the liquid soap dispensers are getting filled—but the soap in them is a bit off.

Kooperman: You can actually watch as the soap is so liquid that it’s actually dripping out of the dispensers, as we’re just standing here—drip, drip, drip. Here as I push it you can see that it really is just like water.

The county’s juvenile courthouse was built in the early 1990s.

It was designed with softer features and big windows to ease the harsh experiences there—which often involve fractured families, child custody and child abuse.

There are some, like Public Guardian Robert Harris, who say cleaning cuts are noticeable but tolerable.

Still Todd Kooperman isn’t the only one who’s bothered by the mess.

People say the new janitors are hardworking—but they’re short staffed and don’t have enough supplies.

The situation gets to one of the core questions in this year’s county budget—what to save and what to eliminate.

Claypool: You know there was huge cuts, draconian cuts in front line workers, doctor, nurses, prosecutors, police, public defenders, janitors.

From the beginning, Commissioner Forrest Claypool said County Board President Todd Stroger’s budget for this year removed too much from frontline services and too little from management.

Now because of Stroger’s inflamatory hires of friends and family... because of some management blunders... because of the county’s looming money problems…. that debate is heating up again.

Claypool: Even some of Stroger’s allies now are, now that they see these cuts going into effect are blanching... are now saying we didn’t vote for this. Well yes they did. We didn’t vote for these layoffs of janitors. We didn’t vote for these layoffs of nurses. Well yes you did.

Stroger and his staff say they tried to protect frontline workers.

But jobs had to be cut—and they did a study that showed the county had too many custodians.

Lance Tyson is Stroger’s Chief of Staff.

Tyson: What we did was we did an analysis in looking at kind of like industrial practices to kind of get a sense as to you know how many folks need to be providing the services.

These days, the county is once again in financial trouble, so there could be more cuts on the way.

In the meantime, many who work for the county are struggling with the reality of the budget cuts that were already made.

For Todd Kooperman that means every day he walks through hallways with more and more stains on the carpet.

Kooperman: Ten yards of drip marks, little black dots. I don’t know what they are. I think if they were water they would have evaporated.

Kooperman says the bathroom soap is bad, but it’s things like the carpet that really bother him.

Kooperman: We often will have clients coming to the office. I’m not sure to what degree they do or don’t notice it. But if I were walking through a law office in downtown Chicago, I’d be very unimpressed if I saw their floor looking like that.

Kooperman says he worries the most about the message that the condition of the building sends to families and kids who come there for help.

At one point several lawyers in the office were sitting around talking about what they would say about the carpet if they saw it in a foster home.

They all agreed that it would be cause for concern.

Not a deal breaker... but definitely a warning sign that there might be bigger problems in the house.

I’m Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio

OUTRO: Tomorrow, when our series continues, the decision to stop using Cook County’s mobile mammogram vans.

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