Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli (center) presents her budget to Cook County Commissioners on Thursday morning, Oct. 26, 2017. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

Public defender defends budget as pols eye cuts after pop-tax repeal

SHARE Public defender defends budget as pols eye cuts after pop-tax repeal
SHARE Public defender defends budget as pols eye cuts after pop-tax repeal

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said Thursday that she has already cut six vacant positions and $5 million from her original 2018 budget request in order to fill the budget gap in the President’s Recommendation for FY2018, but may have to reduce her budget by 10 percent to close a $200 million hole created when commissioners voted to repeal the sweetened beverage tax two weeks ago.

But Campanelli said the more drastic across-the-board cuts proposed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle would impair her ability to adequately represent defendants, prompt lawsuits and wind up costing taxpayers more money in the long run.

In her budget presentation to the County Board, Campanelli argued that she has consistently done more with less.

For fiscal year 2017, Campanelli had 679 full-time employees. Under the 10 percent reduction Preckwinkle is asking all agencies to consider after the repeal of the penny-an-ounce tax, Campanell said the public defender’s staffing would drop to a 19-year low of 570 for 2018.

There would also be about 50 layoffs, and about 60 vacancies eliminated to generate roughly $7.5 million.

Campanelli said that would be a mistake.

Each year, lawyers in her office already handle about 255 felonies, 780 misdemeanors and 19 homicides, well over the annual standard of 150 felonies, 400 misdemeanors and no more than 15 homicides set by the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice. Cuts would open the county up for lawsuits and lead to people being underrepresented, she said.

“Adding another 50 layoffs would only increase the case loads, which are already high,” Campanelli said. “The only recourse I have is to look at my office very carefully, but I want to represent everyone who comes to my office.”

Commissioner Deborah Sims acknowledged that Campanelli’s office is an important one in making sure that people aren’t wrongfully convicted.

“I don’t know where the 10 percent out of your budget is going to come from, but I know [Commissioner Larry] Suffredin and I are going to try to work together to make sure the least amount is cut,” Sims said. “You represent the people who look like me. And I don’t want anyone who looks like me or Arroyo or anyone else to go to jail unnecessarily.”

Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown also unveiled her budget Thursday, asking for about $105.6 million for the 2018 budget, which is $4.1 million more than the 2017 adjusted appropriation. The budget includes a reduction of 44.5 full-time employee positions in order to meet budget targets, according to Brown’s budget presentation.

Commissioner Sean Morrison suggested potentially closing some court branches and providing shuttles for people, an idea floated by Sheriff Tom Dart at his budget presentation Wednesday. Campanelli said that may work, but certain courthouses, such Branches 35 and 38 in the Area South Police Detectives Division headquarters at 727 E. 111th Street, are too “bustling” to close.

If the County Board does decide to cut more from her office, Campanelli said she is considering an injunction to stop the commissioners from taking away any more funding, but it’s a last resort, she said. She hoped the county would collaborate with her and “work this out.”

“By cutting me, you might save a little money now, but in the long run you’re going to have to bring in private counsel, and you know those bills, that’s going to add up over time,” Campanelli said. “I save this county money.”

NOTE: An earlier version of the story said Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said she “could cut six vacant positions and find another $5 million in savings.” It has been updated to say that these cuts were already made, but more cuts to her office’s budget are possible.

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