Inspector General Ferguson rocks boat, fails to accomplish much

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

If Inspector General Joe Ferguson wanted to rock the boat or show how boldly Mayor Daley might have used a lame duck’s political freedom, mission accomplished.
If Ferguson’s goal was to actually get something done, mission going nowhere.

Ferguson’s $247.3 million menu of budget-cutting and revenue-raising options to confront the city's $1 billion-a-year deficit — including pension liabilities — is dead-on-arrival in an election year.

What alderman in his or her right mind is willing to fire 595 firefighters, 161 laborers and 75 downtown traffic control aides, impose a recycling fee and snatch away subsidies for senior citizens, condominium owners and non-profits while cutting neighborhood jumping jacks salvaged just two years ago?

“This may sound interesting, but you have to get 26 votes,” said Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.

Dismissing the report as a “rehash of suggestions made and rejected in the past,” Burke added, “I don’t see any political support for reducing the size of the Fire Department. … It’s a question of safety and having a sufficient number of firefighters available if there’s a disaster or major conflagration.”

Aldermen felt so strongly about the need to shoot down a report they believe was timed to make them look bad, they summoned Budget Director Eugene Munin to do just that.

“The options proposed by the inspector general could put public safety at risk, disregard the needs of some of our most vulnerable residents and necessitate nearly $90 million in new fees for Chicago residents during the worst recession in more than 70 years,” Munin said Monday, during his second appearance before the Budget Committee.

Many of Ferguson’s suggestions — including eliminating quarterly pay raises for police supervisors — are impossible to accomplish without agreement from unions certain to fight the changes.

Ferguson’s $66.6 million-a-year proposal to reduce — from five employees to four — the minimum required to staff every piece of fire apparatus resurrects the issue that touched off a 23-day strike by Chicago firefighters in 1980.

The city is currently allowed to dip below the five-employee mandate 65 times-a-day, a figure that’s unlikely to change in a new firefighters contract, expected to be finalized shortly.

“Lives and property depend on these staffing levels. To even suggest this kind of manning cut would reduce us to a second-rate department,” said Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

To his credit, Ferguson isn’t saying, “Do this.” He’s merely laying out the options and airing the pros and cons of each.
By doing so, he’s giving the next mayor of Chicago a blueprint to follow.

Daley’s successor can either privatize garbage collection to save $112.2 million or keep it in-house, but do it cheaper by: using one laborer on all trucks; changing from a ward-by-ward to a grid system; eliminating the $75-a-year condo rebate; imposing a fee for blue cart recycling and charging non-profits that now receive free garbage collection.

“The more provocative the ideas, the better. It’s healthy,” said mayoral challenger Gery Chico, while ruling out police and fire cuts.

Mayoral challenger Rahm Emanuel said Ferguson has put forth “a bold proposal that raises important questions” about what city government can and should do. Emanuel said he doesn’t agree with “all of the particulars,” but the report is a “worthy start to the conversation.”