City of Chicago watchdog unveils sweeping budget plan

October 25, 2010

Download Story
(Flickr/Francesc Balagué)
The report names 24 cost-saving ideas, including cutting firefighting jobs to save more than $63 million.

A correction has been made to this story.

As Chicago’s City Council enters its final week of budget hearings, the city’s corruption watchdog is laying out dozens of cost-cutting measures he says could help close the historic municipal deficit – from firing firefighters to privatizing garbage pick-up to popping a program that provides free inflatable playgrounds for kids at community events.

The report released Monday by the Office of the Inspector General lays out 24 “budget options” the agency estimates could close more than $247 million of the city’s projected $655 million deficit for 2011.

In a letter accompanying the report, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson was quick to say he doesn’t endorse any of the options, but is merely “informing the debate” on the city’s “daunting fiscal challenges,” which he says include a more than $1 billion budget hole when unfunded city pension liabilities are thrown into the mix.

The report’s single biggest money-saving option is privatizing Chicago’s garbage and recycling collection. The agency estimates cutting the 1,400 jobs connected to trash pick-up and hiring out the duty to a private contractor would add nearly $112 million to the city coffers. Failing that, the report says Chicago could save tens of millions of dollars by instating one-man garbage crews and charging residents to use the blue-cart recycling program.

Other big savings could come from reorganizing the public safety sector, according to the report. For example, it estimates Chicago could save $63.1 million in 2011– and trim 564 jobs – by reducing the number of firefighters on a truck crew from five to four.

And even though Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s administration has been touting the fact that it’s put nearly 300 more police officers on the streets over the past year, the report says an additional 184 sworn officers currently on desk duty could be reassigned and replaced by civilians, saving the city $1.9 million in costly police benefits.

The inspector general’s report represents a no-sacred-cows approach to budgeting, and finds potential savings in every cranny of city government: $15.2 million by axing water and sewer subsidies to churches and nonprofits; $5 million by having janitors vacuum and mop just three days a week, instead of daily; and $500,000 by slashing the Jumping Jack program, which “provides inflatable playgrounds for community events around the City.”

The report also represents a different direction for the city’s watchdog. The inspector general’s office has traditionally made headlines by rooting out corrupt officials and going after city workers on the take, but it’s now wading into public policy debates.

And Ferguson’s new tack may butt up against some harsh political realities.

Some of the budget options that could be enacted immediately, such as eliminating free sewer service for senior citizens or doing away with property tax relief grants, could prove to be a tough sell to Chicago aldermen who are looking to woo recession-weary voters ahead of February’s municipal elections.

And many of the long-term options could run into their own problems. Privatizing city services, for example, has remained controversial since the Chicago signed off on a 75-year, $1.15 billion lease of its parking meters in December 2008. The move paved the way for steep parking rate hikes, only to have the prior inspector general, David Hoffman, release a report saying the meter system was worth far more than the city received.

Several other options would require tough contract renegotiations with labor unions, some of which have already offered concessions and taken unpaid days off during the economic downturn.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the 2011 budget on Nov. 17, and aldermen must approve a budget by the end of the calendar year.

Representatives for Mayor Richard Daley's administration, for for several public employees' unions didn't immediately return calls for comment.


RELATED: Read the full report

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of positions cut and the amount that could be saved by reducing the size of fire truck crews.  The budget option would eliminate 564 positions and save $63.1 million.