Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just for Fun: Suggestions for the Chicago Budget

In today's Sun Times, we find a clear and informative article on Mayor Daley's plans to pour more cash into the ailing Chicago budget. Fran Spielman, city hall reporter, tells us how the budget shortfall will be met:

"Mayor Daley today proposed laying off 929 city employees, eliminating 1,346 vacant jobs and raising parking and amusement taxes and assorted fees to erase a $469 million budget shortfall that's getting bigger by the day.

The 929 layoffs mark the largest purge of Daley's nearly 20 years in office, but it could have been worse. The mayor's 11th-hour plan to order a partial shutdown of city government around the holidays spared the jobs of 225 city employees who would otherwise have been laid off."
That's not all - a bulleted list includes the usual solutions: We will be ticketed more, taxed more, and charged more for permits, etc., while superfluous jobs - like police officers - are cut back.

Mr. Mayor, we want to help. As most of us out here in making-ends-meet land know, one of the first tasks in budgeting is finding the leaks. Look at where the money has gone in the past, take stock, and make adjustments for the future. It's hard to think of everything, so here are some things you might consider - an idea list of sorts - to help move things along.

Back on October 14, 2007, Sun Times reporters Tim Novak and Fran Spielman wrote an article that may be helpful. It was called HIDDEN TAX: City loses millions to clout, fraud. (The page, strangely, appears to be blank. Scroll down.) Novak and Spielman write:
"When Mayor Daley asked Chicagoans to cough up $293 million more next year to finance the cost of city government, there's one tax he failed to mention: The Corruption, Waste and Mismanagement Tax.

It's almost impossible to calculate the cost of the Hired Truck, city hiring, minority contracting and police corruption scandals."
(Wow. We've gone from $293 million to $469 million. If only the great reformer and activist Obama had even mentioned this, we might have been able to nip it in the bud. I can't think why he didn't.) Anyway, here are of some good targets for budget correction in Spielman & Novak's article, and some suggestions from us for the mayor.
"WORKERS COMPENSATION -- One of every five patronage workers on the secret clout list kept by the mayor's former patronage chief filed at least one worker's compensation claim against the city, a Sun-Times analysis found. That incredibly high injury rate would make patronage work one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Chicago taxpayers pay those claims."
Assuming that the City of Chicago has followed all possible safety protocols for its employees, and that this kind of thing is still a problem, it may be more humane to let these poor folks stay home before they're hired by the city. They may then look for a more appropriate, safer line of work. That will also help with things like this:
"FEDERAL HIRING MONITOR -- Well over $2 million in legal fees -- and counting -- have been paid to federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan and her staff. Brennan was appointed in 2005 to oversee city hiring by a federal judge livid with the city for making a mockery of the decree that was supposed to end political hiring and firing, but never did. Hundreds of thousands of additional legal fees were spent on attorneys who represented Daley, the City Council and the Black Caucus in the Shakman case."
And this:
"RIGGED HIRING FUND -- More than 1,400 people have staked claims to the $12 million fund created to compensate victims of the city's rigged hiring system. The fund was created to settle the long-running Shakman case. Daley's former patronage chief was convicted last year of rigging city hiring to benefit the Hispanic Democratic Organization and other pro-Daley armies of political workers."
And this:
"MORE LEGAL FEES -- Chicago taxpayers coughed up $251,314 in legal fees in 2006 alone to represent non-targeted city employees drawn into federal investigations swirling around City Hall. And that's not counting dozens of other city employees represented by the city's Law Department. Tens of thousands more were paid to Vince Connelly, the former federal prosecutor hired to quarterback the city's response to the federal investigation."
Let's see. What's that come to . . . $2,000,000 + 12,000,000 + $251,314 . . . that would be $14,251,314, and counting . . . plus the original salary of the accident prone patronage workers, plus workers comp claims. That (theoretically, of course) negates the necessity for reducing the number of police hires in 2009, which would have saved $10,000,000 according to Fran Spielman's more recent report, and may even cover the $6,000,000 increase in "user fees, permits and penalties, including ambulance fees."

Another possible leak in the budget from Sun Times reporter Novak & Spielman's 2007 article:
"MINORITY BUSINESS FRAUD -- The parade of white-owned minority fronts that have cashed in on this program is led by the Duff family. But it also includes a host of other political insiders, including Tony Rezko, Gov. Blagojevich's now-indicted former fund-raiser, and the sister of Hispanic Democratic Organization chieftain Victor Reyes."
Now this is a very radical idea (for Chicago), but desperate times call for desperate measures, Mr. Mayor. It may be time to think about truly open competitive bidding. I know, I know, it's politically risky and upsetting. Calm down. It's just a thought. Let's move on.
"BUILDING DEPARTMENT BRIBES -- Nearly a dozen city building inspectors have been accused of accepting bribes to ignore building code violations, as part of an ongoing joint investigation by the inspector general and the federal government. It's the same department that hired the teenaged sons of Carpenters Union officials to serve as city building inspectors in 2004."
"HIRED TRUCKS -- In 2004, the Chicago Sun-Times blew the lid off this $40-million-a-year scandal, which called for the city to lease hundreds of dump trucks, whose owners often bribed city officials to get work on city job sites. The program had been around for decades, but was abolished in 2005. City employees now drive dump trucks leased from one company -- not the 165 companies that cashed in on Hired Truck."
Mr. Mayor, it may be time to tax bribes directly - call it The Bribe Assessment Tax of 2008 - and make it a tax of about 50% or so. You could call it a "consultant fee tax" - or a "fee-fee", if you like. We all know that bribes don't shock Chicagoans any more anyway, and it does have a sort of punitive feel, which will help politically.

Of course, you could cut taxes and create a business and work friendly environment in order to sustainably bolster revenue, hire people most qualified to do the job, clean up corruption and clearly communicate that this is not "the way things are done" - it is theft, a rape of the system and the citizen - but that's not Chicago's style, is it? So, we offer our alternative suggestions.

Hope that helps.

(Afterthoughts: Maybe you'd like to make suggestions, too. Food for thought: The Better Government Association has a database where you can view salaries of government employees in various departments in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. Click to agree to terms & conditions, select the database from the drop down list, and off you go. It's interesting to click the link at the top of the "Salary" column to see the salaries in order, starting with the highest. If you want to explore political "power and influence connections", you can do that at Muckety. Tip: Make coffee.)

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