One might think that after Chicago's infamous parking meter deal, “privatization” would be like a four-letter word around City Hall. Then again, Mayor Rahm Emanuel loves his curse words.
But there it was again — as a surprise, almost a throwaway line — in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2016 budget address:
“By outsourcing operations at 311, we’ll save taxpayers about a million dollars a year.”
In the midst of calling for a nearly $600-million property tax increase, a $9.50-garbage-collection fee and a host of other fees and fines to help the city dig itself out of its financial troubles, the mayor also wants the city to privatize what some aldermen call the “backbone” of the city’s service structure.
Residents dial 311 for any problem that the city of Chicago can fix: Think your car’s been towed? Seen one rat too many scurrying around your recycling bin? Do you need a recycling bin? Through 311, operators who live and work in Chicago connect citizens with the proper department, who will then work to get that situation settled.
But according to the mayor and administrators like Gary Schenkel, the executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications which runs the non-emergency service, the 311 system needs costly repairs over the next few years — and that, the city can’t afford.
“Technology moves so fast, and we’ve grown to have expectations as constituents, all of us do in the world: flat screen TVs, iPhone 6,” Schenkel said in a budget hearing last week. “Sixteen-year-old technology is not meeting that expectation.”
But that argument hasn’t gone very far with many aldermen, including some who usually stick by Emanuel. They’ve raised many loud arguments about 311 during budget hearings; and the time spent on this issue is up there with concerns about massive property taxes or gun violence.
“The thing I would hate to see is we’re dialing 311, and someone in Kentucky picks up, or someone across the water picks up,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28).
But when you look a little closer at the mayor’s 311 plan, there are a few caveats. It’s too early to say what vendor would even want to help the city with upgrades, the city hasn’t initiated a search. And even the budget director, Alex Holt, shared that the 72 positions that could be on line are actually still funded in the proposed 2016 budget.
Lastly, there’s the financial element: The mayor’s plan is only estimated to bring in about a $1 million in savings — a drop in the bucket of the more than $9 billion overall budget. And those savings likely wouldn’t be achieved very quickly.
All this got some aldermen wondering: Is this all just some political tactic?
Alderman Rick Munoz (22) didn’t just wonder, he said, he’s certain. As a matter of fact, he had a name for it: The mayor’s “throwaways.”
“The Emanuel administration has been known to throw things into a budget that they’re willing to negotiate away, so they can seem like they’re listening in the process,” Munoz said.
Munoz recalled one of the big political dramas of 2011, as an example: The mayor’s proposal to cut around $10 million from the city’s public libraries. Protests broke out in affected neighborhoods, and 28 aldermen signed a letter asking the mayor to change his mind.
Two days later, the mayor backed down.
“I think this speaks to that new partnership that I said I was gonna do in the campaign,” Emanuel said then.
Munoz isn’t the only aldermen who’s been eyeing 311 as a potential “throwaway” — his progressive caucus colleague Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) agrees. But she said this tactic isn’t only an Emanuel thing: Budgeting by trial balloons or “red herrings,” in her opinion is “just politics.” Other aldermen say the mayor isn’t putting on a show: These are examples that he’s listening and compromising.
Though the mayor isn’t the only one who benefits. Munoz said the tactic “works both ways,” as in for aldermen, too. It can be proof to constituents that their aldermen are fighting for their interests.
For Emanuel’s part, budget office spokeswoman Molly Poppe says “the consideration of privatizing the 311 system is not a throwaway proposal.”
But until 311’s future is crystal clear, aldermen will likely be using any uncertainty to their own advantage. It gives them a way to score their own political points, by blasting an idea to prove they’ve got taxpayers backs.
And at a time when City Council faces a more politically damaging vote — a historic property tax hike that will hit voter’s wallets -- aldermen are looking to pick up political victories anywhere they can.
Lauren Chooljian covers Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @laurenchooljian