Budget reductions meet resistance

By Darryl Holliday

Ways to save the city more than $200 million are hitting a wall of controversy in Chicago’s City Council.

As city budget committee meetings move forward, many city officials are crying foul over a report laid out by Inspector General Joe Ferguson on Oct. 25.

The budget options report—the first of its kind from the current inspector general’s office—contains 24 options various city departments could implement to save money or potentially increase revenue.

According to the report from the inspector general, the report’s creation is largely due to the city’s annual $1 billion deficit—a combination of ongoing budget deficits and the expenses used of funding the city’s pension system.

The inspector general’s office is tasked with uncovering corruption, waste and mismanagement through investigations and audits in order to promote efficiency in Chicago.

Among others, the Streets and Sanitation, Water Management and Community Development departments are listed in the budget reduction options.

“The question is whether the office is in a place, statutorily, to recommend actual budget changes or whether we’re in a place where we can offer budget options,” said Jon Davey, spokesman for the inspector general’s office.

Rather than recommending solutions, which would be outside the role of the office, the inspector general opted toward providing the city with options.

While some officials are taking those options into consideration, others question why the inspector general didn’t announce his report when he appeared before the budget council on Oct. 22.

“It is revealing that the inspector general has waited until this late date to publicize his budget options,” said Chicago Budget Director Eugene Munin in a statement released on Oct. 25. “Had he presented these suggestions to the budget director or chief financial officer many months ago, he would have been part of the collaborative process that it takes to produce the budget and he would have preserved his office’s resources.”

Davey denies the report’s timing is in any way politically motivated because of the report’s release in the final phase of budget hearings, as some city officials suggested.

According to Davey, the report was released upon its completion. He admits, though, the timing was unfortunate.

“In a perfect world we would have had [the report] done, certainly well in advance of the City Council’s budget hearings, but we simply did not have the resources to do so,” he said.

Though the report was not timely enough for use in this year’s budget hearings, according to Alderman Latasha Thomas (17th Ward), the issue may be taken up next year.

The inspector general’s office agreed to reappear before the budget committee if it’s invited for further questioning.

“To be honest, I think the office is very comfortable with the way the letter and the overview read. We do our best to put everything out there,” Davey said. “The office understands and sympathizes with the schedule concerns … but we released it as soon as it was available.”

The inspector general’s budget options are not endorsements of specific budget reductions. Rather, according to the report’s cover letter, they are a call for a framework and analysis to better inform public discussion.

In fact, some discussion of the report’s content has already taken place in Chicago’s City Council during the recent hearings, which began on Oct. 18.

“Grid-based garbage done by private vendors with [garbage] and recyclables cannot work,” said Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne commenting on several separate cost-saving options listed in the report during the budget hearing on Oct. 27.

Those options include privatizing city garbage and recycling collection, charging a fee for blue cart recycling and reducing the number of laborers on garbage trucks to one.

According to Byrne, implementation of the options, totaling approximately $172 million in potential savings, could mean a loss in labor force, available garbage trucks and a decrease in his department’s ability to put together an effective snow-plow team this winter.

“It seems his report was short on bodies, because he was laying off quite a few people,” said Alderman Freddrenna Lyle (6th Ward).

The city’s Department of Community Development, which would save a total of $16 million under the budget options, has no formal response to the report, according to Susan Massel, a spokeswoman for the department.

As mentioned in the report, 60 percent of Chicago’s budget goes toward personnel costs and benefits, an area, among others, which the inspector general said must be examined in order for the city to regain financial security.