5 Things You Learn Sitting Through Cook County Budget Hearings | WBEZ
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5 Things You Learn Sitting Through Cook County Budget Hearings

There were a batch of public hearings last week about Cook County’s proposed 2019 budget, a nearly $6 billion plan with no new taxes, fees, or fines.

A ritual ensued. A parade of elected and appointed officials who oversee the county’s jail, courts, health system, and more told County Board commissioners how the budget would impact their offices.

With no fresh revenue, many government leaders feel financially squeezed. Some pleaded for more money. Others begrudgingly said they would make do.

Commissioners typically vote on the budget in November, and it takes effect Dec. 1.

Here’s what we learned about Cook County government by sitting through hours of budget hearings.

Prosecutors’ case loads ‘completely out of hand’

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx says her attorneys are drowning in cases. They’re each shouldering about 3,000 – nearly 8 times more than experts recommend per lawyer. Among the reasons for the high case load is the roughly 250,000 misdemeanor cases Foxx’s office is set to prosecute this year. To put that in perspective, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office prosecutes less than half as many cases a year, in a jurisdiction about twice the size of Cook County.

“This issue is completely out of hand,” Foxx told commissioners on Wednesday. “Many of the 250,000 cases come from our suburban areas, and about 50 percent of those cases end in dismissals and acquittals at the cost to the county by and large because victims and witnesses aren’t showing up.”

Foxx was already set to get 25 more full-time employees next year. But she told commissioners she needs another 16 attorneys. That would cost about $1 million. County budget director Tanya Anthony said the government could come up with that cash by cutting back on hiring outside lawyers. They cost at least $180 an hour, four times more than a county attorney.

The financial toll of providing so much free medical care

The Cook County Health system provides nearly half of all the free care in the county for people who can’t afford it. That’s despite there being almost 70 hospitals here, a WBEZ investigation detailed in August.

Commissioners were frustrated with the rising burden and batted around ideas on how to pressure other hospitals to pick up the slack. They’re starting with this one: Commissioners should meet with hospital leaders in their districts and urge them to treat more patients for free.

“I think it’s important because you see the breaks they’re getting,” Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), referring to what can be lucrative property tax breaks for nonprofit hospitals.

Goodbye to carbon paper court documents?

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown has long promised to modernize her antiquated court filing system. Attorneys and citizens had to trek to her office in Chicago’s Loop to pull paper copies of records. Lines were long. Some manila folder files simply went missing.

Then the Illinois Supreme Court required civil cases like divorces be filed online statewide. Brown complied this summer. It’s been one giant headache ever since, she told commissioners on Wednesday. Attorneys and citizens need a lot of help to learn the new system.

“I was talking to an attorney the other night that said he comes every day for every filing,” Brown said.

Yes, every day. It’s the new normal at the clerk’s office. She estimates about 80 percent of her employees, including herself, are tied up helping people.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat, asked Brown if she had any creative ideas to generate revenue so she could hire more workers to help ease the crunch. She said here’s one: charge the people who need help.

What if you could choose where to vote?

Used to voting at your local school, church, or community center?

Chicago voters could be casting ballots at larger universal polling centers in the future, instead of having to go to ones tied to where they live. Lance Gough, executive director of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, told county commissioners it’s getting harder to find polling places for security reasons.

“People don’t want you in their building,” Gough said on Wednesday. “We’ve had a lot of condos on the Gold Coast. They only want their residents to vote.”

Many polling sites aren’t accessible to disabled voters either, such as fire departments. The Board of Elections also wants to change the law to allow voters to automatically get ballots mailed to them, instead of having to request them each election.

Maria Pappas FTW

Colorful Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose office collects property tax payments and issues refunds, donned a pink sweatshirt with the words “LOVE WINS” emblazoned in all caps for her budget hearing on Wednesday.

In a union town, Pappas waxed poetically about her shrinking workforce and the savings she’s achieved for the county. Her 2019 headcount is 87 people, down about two-thirds since 1998. Her goal is to have an entirely self-funded office. She’s put much of the tax payment process online.

“I think you are the epitome of what public service is,” said Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican.

Only about $860,000 of Pappas’ $12.7 million budget comes from county taxpayers. The rest comes from commercial user fees.

“I’m going to try to get it down to zero over the next four years,” she told Morrison.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch

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