Cook County layoff notices land Friday as soda tax remains bottled up

SHARE Cook County layoff notices land Friday as soda tax remains bottled up

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Layoff notices went out to some 300 Cook County employees Friday, and hundreds more jobs remain on the block as a controversial tax on sugary drinks faces a crucial court hearing next week.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said cuts to date totaled 300 employees, more than a quarter of the 1,100 posts she forecast would need to be cut to make up for $68 million the county had budgeted to take in from a 1-cent-per ounce tax on soda pop and other sweetened beverages.

Revenues from the tax have been blocked from county coffers by a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. A hearing in the case is scheduled for July 21 in front of Cook County Judge Daniel Kubasiak.

The county also lopped 600 vacant positions from the 2017 budget, and every county department was asked to cut 10 percent from their spending, Preckwinkle’s office said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, the lawsuit filed by theIRMAand others just days before the tax was to take effect has led to what is likely to be a protracted legal fight,” Preckwinkle said. “And while we believe we will ultimately prevail, we must take fiscally responsible actions now.”

The cuts included 63 of the 430 in the Public Defender’s Office, said Kevin Ochalla, president of AFSCME Local 3315, the union representing staff attorneys. Union employees received required 30-day notice of the looming layoffs.

The State’s Attorney’s office cut 17 prosecutors and 22 staffers, spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said. The county hospital system lost “fewer than 100” workers, spokeswoman Alexandra Normington said.

The bulk of the 1,100 jobs to be cut are slated to come from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, where Preckwinkle’s office had called for 825 workers to lose their jobs, said Cara Smith, Director of Policy for Sheriff Tom Dart. Dart was working to hit Preckwinkle’s 10-percent mandate without reducing the headcount at the already short-handed county jail, and will submit a budget plan to Preckwinkle on Tuesday, Smith said.

Savings from any staffing cuts at the jail will only be absorbed by the need for overtime pay, as the 7,600-inmate lockup— which only recently was released from federal oversight after four decades under a Justice Department consent decree is the sheriff’s largest budget item.

“Any cuts in staffing at the jail are going to do two things: put officers at risk and likely invite the Department of Justice back in,” Smith said. “We have to be very careful.”

Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park, who opposed the soda tax, on Friday accused Preckwinkle of fomenting a crisis— and one that would impact courthouse staffing and security— to build pressure on Kubasiak as the judge prepares to rule on whether the tax is legal.

“This is nothing more than a bullying tactic to force the hand of the judiciary to say that the sweetened beverage tax is constitutional,” Boykin said Friday.

Boykin said Preckwinkle had rebuffed his proposal for a budget working group that would try to make up the $68 million deficit by trimming bloat from county operations.

“You don’t take a hatchet to the budget, you use a scalpel,” Boykin said.

Contributing: Rachel Hinton

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