MITCHELL: County aims to protect vulnerable from impact of budget cuts

SHARE MITCHELL: County aims to protect vulnerable from impact of budget cuts

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans said the suit against Cook County, Preckwinkle and county Treasurer Maria Pappas aims to make the county to take “whatever action is necessary” to stave off the layoffs. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Layoffs are never easy.

And we can’t say that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle didn’t give us fair warning that if the dreaded soda tax disappeared, there would be pain.

But the most vulnerable people — children, the elderly and those with disabilities —should never have to bear the brunt of that pain.

That’s what would have happened had the Cook County Budget office board made cuts in the Cook County Public Guardian’s office without someone sitting down with the head of that office to determine what cuts would be the least harmful.


Frankly, as a matter of good government, such meetings should have taken place before the budget office made the cuts public.

According to the acting Cook County Public Guardian, Charles Golbert, his pleas for collaboration with respect to layoffs fell on deaf ears.

Golbert, a 26-year veteran, says he has a staff of 207, most of them lawyers, to handle a caseload of 6,000 children and 600 people with disabilities.

“We are the last defense for children in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services care and because DCFS is in shambles right now, if the child is in danger and there’s no response, people will call us and we take care of it,” he said.

“If a child outgrows a wheelchair and the foster parent is getting the runaround from DCFS, they pick up the phone and call us. We also represent children in some of the ugliest and most highly contested divorce custody cases,” Golbert told me. Frank Shuftan, the chief spokesperson for Preckwinkle, had defended the reductions in an email earlier in the day on Monday.

“This is consistent with the reductions recommended throughout other county agencies, departments and offices to better align with best practices — essentially, in a number of offices there are too many supervisors to line workers. This is the case within the Office of the Chief Judge through which the Public Guardian reports,” he said.

Shuftan pointed out that the Office of the Chief Judge proposed restoring certain positions in return for furlough days.

“None of the jobs he proposed restoring are in the Public Guardian’s office,” Shuftan said.

But late Monday, Shuftan changed his tune:

“The Budget Office has worked today to restore the 22 positions due to layoffs in the Public Guardian’s office. The matter will be brought before the Finance Committee and Board of Commissioners tomorrow. Advocates for the Public Guardian made a compelling case over the weekend and today, to roll back the planned layoffs and maintain service levels and, working together with Commissioner [Larry] Suffredin, the Budget Office has found savings to do so,” Shuftan said in an update.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans has bumped heads with the Cook County board president in the past over budget cuts.

And I have no doubt that every department head is reluctant to lay off anyone, especially with the holidays rapidly approaching.

But Golbert made a convincing argument.

It makes no sense for the Cook County Commissioners to lay off that many positions without looking at the impact those layoffs would have on the department’s ability to fulfill its legal and fiduciary responsibilities to the county’s most vulnerable members.

“These cuts would decimate our ability to represent abused kids and to take care of seniors,” he said.

Unfortunately, abused and neglected kids are invisible to many of us until their faces turn up in a tragic story.

But most of the attorneys who have worked their way up to a supervisory position in the Office of the Public Guardian have reached the point where they really can make a difference in these children’s lives.

They deserve consideration based on the merits of their service — not on political expediency.

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