Budget ideas deserve a closer inspection

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

So let's get this right: Kinky contracts and illegal patronage are things of the past in Chicago.

That's one conclusion you could draw when City Hall's inspector general, the person who's supposed to investigate all that shady stuff, has enough time on his hands to draw up an alternative city budget.

But here's an alternate reaction: Maybe Inspector General Joe Ferguson's ideas for cutting spending and raising revenues deserve a close look.

When Ferguson unveiled his budget remedies over the weekend, half the aldermen sneered. And no wonder. Many of his ideas had been suggested before, only to be crushed by interest groups.

But who has a better idea? Certainly not the aldermen. And only bold action -- by definition politically impractical -- will solve the city's money problems.

Chicago is struggling with a deficit of $1 billion a year, including pension liabilities. Mayor Daley has closed that gap in the past with stopgap measures, and he's proposing to do the same this year.

But kicking a problem down the road works only so long. Eventually it gets so big you can't budge it, kick as you will.

Ferguson is urging dramatic action, like reducing staffing on fire trucks, eliminating tuberculosis clinic funding, ending free sewer service for seniors and privatizing garbage and recycling collection. He'd also impose fees for blue cart recycling and garbage pickup for nonprofits.

Every one of those ideas deserves consideration, even Ferguson's proposal to reduce by 595 the number of firefighters.

The aldermen, of course, say that would compromise public safety, which may or may not be true. They always say that. But it would upset people -- that's for certain.

We're not sure it's the inspector general's job to draw up a budget.

Then again, somebody's got to do it.