Operating 'in the dark' at Cook County

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New Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle says crafting her first budget early this year was like “operating in the dark.”

Toni Preckwinkle

“One of the most frustrating things — we walk in the door and we had to do 16 percent budget cuts,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times Editorial Board this week. “But it was like operating in the dark because … the whole county staff couldn’t report to us on how much it cost to fix a pothole or how long it took when someone was brought into the jail to get them to trial or how long people had to wait for care in our emergency room or the clinics or our pharmacies.

“We didn’t have the basic information that you need to do intelligent trimming of the budget,” she said. “You couldn’t tell where you were fat and where you were lean.”

For those who are the Cook County equivalent of Kremlinologists, it is perhaps significant to point out that Preckwinkle went out of her way to praise for cooperation Sheriff Thomas Dart and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, the two elected officials whom she publicly chastised earlier this year for not cooperating with her call for budget cutting.

“The sheriff and the state’s attorney have been enormously helpful and their staffs have been very cooperative, and that leads me to be optimistic that we can achieve substantial improvements in both performance and efficiency,” Preckwinkle said.

The county public defender’s office, though, didn’t get such high praise.

As part of her new performance management push, Preckwinkle cited the example of setting an overall goal to reduce County Jail costs.

“One of the ways in which we can do that is to try to reduce the number of time people sit in jail between [entering] the jail and [having] the cases actually disposed of,” she said. “And unfortunately we don’t know exactly how long that is, [but] the cost is $142 a day to keep somebody in jail.”

Preckwinkle said she hopes to get different county agencies to work together to reduce the time people waitl.

“One of the things we are working on speeding up trial dates for people,” she said. “The accusation, for example — I’ll speak to the public defender because the public defender is within the purview of my office — [that] sometimes the public defenders ask for a number of continuances because they know that the longer the case goes, the more likely it is that the state’s attorney will lose track of witnesses.”

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