Chicago watchdog offers budget options, aldermen bite back

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chicago's top internal watchdog on Monday offered up ideas to improve the bottom line at City Hall in the face of chronic budget shortfalls, but Mayor Richard Daley's administration and several aldermen dismissed his suggestions as warmed-over.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said the city will be short $1 billion or more a year for the foreseeable future and cannot continue making one-time fixes like tapping the proceeds from the leases of the Chicago Skyway and city parking meter system.

"Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so," responded City Council Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke, 14th, at a budget hearing. He was referring to one proposal to save nearly $5.3 million by ending free sewer service for senior citizens.

Ferguson, who declined to be interviewed, said in the report he was simply offering options, not making recommendations, that could cut costs by as much as $247.4 million a year.

The options include reducing to four the number of firefighters on each engine and truck, in keeping with levels in some other major cities, to save $66.6 million a year. Having private industry take over the city's garbage and recycling pickup would save $112.2 million.

City Budget Director Eugene Munin threw cold water on the proposals, saying they "could put public safety at risk, disregard the needs of some of the most vulnerable residents of our city and necessitate nearly $90 million in new fees for Chicago residents during the worst recession in more than 70 years." Some of the suggestions were already being implemented, he added.

Reducing the number of firefighters, an idea deemed worthy of discussion by some independent-minded aldermen, would require a change to a union contract that Munin said would in turn trigger a demand of the city to make a concession of equal value. And privatizing garbage and recycling pickup has long been resisted.

"It's a short-term solution that could cause long-term problems with respect to accountability," said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th, one of the council's leading independents. "I think it would be much better to insist on better management internally."

In a suggestion long opposed by most aldermen, the report suggests that if garbage pickup is not privatized, the city's Streets and Sanitation Department could end its ward-by-ward system of carrying out that task. A grid system would save $29.6 million, it concludes.

"For elected officials, it's really important that you have a personal relationship with your ward superintendent," said Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, 4th. "Otherwise, things don't get done that you need done. And you get blamed for it. It's not the mayor."

Other aldermen questioned the will to reduce water and sewer subsidies to lauded nonprofit organizations, like Children's Memorial Hospital and the Misericordia home for disabled children.

"The inspector general should be congratulated for putting together a very interesting report," Burke said. "The only problem is there's nothing new in the report that hasn't been talked about over the last 20 years."