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Cuts Have Circuit Clerks Calling Foul

For anyone who’s paid a traffic ticket, filed a lawsuit in small claims court or checked online to find the next court hearing, the circuit clerk’s role is integral. But that could change, as all 102 circuit clerks across Illinois, including Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown, face 10 to 20 percent salary cuts because of the state’s budget woes.  And many are calling the move not only unfair but illegal.

County sheriffs, assessors, coroners and treasurers throughout Illinois are losing 35 percent of their annual $6,500 state stipends this year; circuit clerks, however, are losing 100 percent. The stipend was created in 1986 by the Illinois General Assembly to cover additional duties circuit clerks perform under state law. The stipend was increased to its current amount in 1999.

The Illinois Supreme Court, which is responsible for the circuit clerks’ budgets, says the cuts are necessary to help cover the probation department’s massive $43 million shortfall. But circuit clerks argue their cuts are disproportionate to other state offices, and under the Circuit Clerks Act, the stipend is mandated.

Part of the circuit clerks’ duties include the collection and distribution of fines and data collection of all circuit courts. Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2011 budget plan, released last week , recommends $245 million to the court’s budget, 14 percent less than the requested $322 million.

The stipend from the state budget is needed to compensate clerks for the great amount of work needed to stay on top on ever-changing legislation and the long hours required, said Becky Jansen, president of the Illinois Association of Circuit Clerks. Jansen said the clerks are being singled out, and there are options, such as grants, the probation department could pursue to cover its deficit.

“We understand there are cuts, but we’ve never asked for an increase,” said Jansen, circuit clerk of Effingham County.  “We want to be treated like the other departments.”

The circuit clerks might pursue legal action to restore their stipend but only as a last resort, Jansen said.

“We don’t want any lawsuit, but we also have to protect ourselves,” she said.

The money needs to be reallocated to prevent the salary cut, Jansen said, and the likelihood of the money coming from other sources, such as local taxes, is slim.

By law, the probation budget needs to be fully funded; in the past year, it saw a 63 percent cut, from $95 million to $36 million, said Joe Tybor, spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court. The money diverted from the clerks was necessary to help fill the gap, Tybor said, adding that he was unaware whether the clerks’ stipend was mandatory.

“After several months of work, the chief justice pleaded and received $16 million,” he said. “The court views the probation system as being vitally important.”

The cut could affect clerks soon retiring, said Sherri Miller, circuit clerk of Carroll County.

“This cut impacts me personally by eliminating 14 percent of my salary, and it impacts my retirement, which is based on the last four years of income,” Miller said.

While cuts need to be made, they should made applied equally, argued Randy Frese, circuit clerk of Adams County.

“This seems to be a slap in the face to court clerks, Illinois Supreme Court and the Illinois Constitution,” said Frese. “I understand that the state is in a fiscal crisis, and I am willing to negotiate this matter. Let’s start with this — if all wages and expenditures in the state’s budget will be cut by 10 to 20 percent, I will accept a 10 to 20 percent cut gladly.”

Historically, the governor’s budgets have reflected the funds the courts are seeking, said Charles Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois-Springfield. But this proposed allocation goes against the trend.

Cuts are  also being proposed in other areas even though they run contrary to the law, Wheeler said. The cuts won’t be illegal, Wheeler said, as long as the law is changed to accommodate these cuts.

The clerks plan to rally March 17 at the state capitol to protest the cuts and demand they be restored.

“We are coming to Springfield so the legislators and governor remember us,” said Jansen. “We’re hoping they’ll listen and do their job.”

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