Chicago Passes Austerity Budget with Little Debate (But More Than Usual)

Kari Lydersen

Chicago residents may not want more budget cuts, but there are likely more headed their way in 2013.

On Thursday the Chicago City Council passed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed 2013 budget, which — although it doesn’t include widespread layoffs and service cuts like last year’s — continues the trend of shrinking the city’s government. Union analysts and other critics fear a harsh impact on residents who depend on public agencies for services and jobs.

There was never any doubt the budget would pass: Chicago’s city council has long been known as a rubber-stamp body. The vote was 46-3 with one city councilman absent. What was notable was that three councilmen did vote against the budget and one, Robert Fioretti, spoke in strident terms about how cuts and privatization could hurt regular people. Last year’s budget passed unanimously despite deep job cuts, the closure of six union-staffed mental-health clinics, the privatization of primary-care clinics and other public-service cuts. 

We may not be generating the headlines of the parking meters,” Fioretti said, referring to the debacle in which former Mayor Richard M. Daley leased the city’s meters to a private company, but we are eliminating middle-class jobs. For what result? What do we say to our constituents who are sold out, to the dedicated employees of mental health centers, to the police officers who are not seeing vacancies filled? … This helps the city in the long run how?”

Fioretti was one of a handful of city councilmen in the Progressive Caucus who hosted three evening community budget hearings for citizens to voice concerns, since the mayor broke with tradition in declining to hold any official evening community hearings.

Fioretti concluded by saying he is confident the city can tackle its budget gap but the lack of transparency and lack of public input gives me great pause.”

Pressure to be all in’

The other councilmen seemed alarmed by Fioretti’s dissent, or perhaps by rumors that up five members of the council were considering a no” vote. Pushing for unanimity, the majority of the council went to great lengths to praise the budget and the mayor.

If last time was tough and we were all in, I’m at a little bit of a loss to find out why we aren’t all in today,” said Councilman Patrick O’Connor, who used the phrase all in” several more times. 

I would like to see today that unanimity ring through this chamber again to demonstrate that the mayor and members of city council are acting together as one,” said Ed Burke, arguably the council’s most powerful member. It is widely believed that Burke tried to prevent Emanuel from running for mayor in 2011, but he stressed his loyalty to the mayor’s budget. He went on to rave about the heroism of local firefighters, seeming to mean that councilmen who opposed the budget were betraying firefighters — an odd implication given that the firefighters union has fought the Emanuel administration over cuts.

Most of the councilmen who heaped praise upon the budget avoided mentioning the hot-button issues of clinic closures, lost jobs and privatization, which were the main concerns aired at the three community hearings and the one barely-publicized official public budget hearing. Instead, the councilmen focused on smaller issues, with many lauding city plans to ratchet up tree trimming — a service Councilman Leslie Hairston said is necessary because overgrown trees block street lights and create a breeding ground for people to have their purses stolen.”

Numerous councilmen praised the transparency” of the Emanuel administration and the budget process. This must have been frustrating for the hundreds of citizens who attended the various hearings only to have their concerns almost completely ignored on the day of the vote. Progressive Caucus member Toni Foulkes offered only praise for the budget, though she was at the alternative community hearings and heard hours of testimony about the closing of mental health clinics, among other issues. She did launch into a long rumination on the idea that mental health is a problem, noting that people cannot necessarily recognize the face of mental illness” in their midst. At no point did she mention mental health clinics.

While Councilman Howard B. Brookins allowed that he had received complaints from 34 water department call-center employees who lost their jobs due to privatization, he praised the mayor’s office for working with them to find other city jobs. (These efforts have not yet borne fruit.)

Shirking responsibility

Union analysts have pointed out that layoffs and cuts which are not immediately obvious may be embedded in the 2013 budget. The voluminous document includes significantly increased funds for private contracting in the public health and family services departments, indicating privatization is likely in the works. It also includes many references to efficiency,” a common rationale for job cuts and outsourcing.

AFSCME, which represents Chicago librarians, clinic staff and other public workers, alleges that the city has repeatedly violated the constraints on privatization spelled out in its contract with the union. AFSCME’s contract gives the union the right to bid” against private contractors when the city is considering privatizing a service. But the union alleges the city has turned services over to private contractors even when AFSCME could do the work more cheaply. For example, the union says the city hired a Japanese firm to take over the water department call center even though the union said city workers could do the job for $800,000 less.

AFSCME says the city has also violated its contract by announcing and moving forward with privatization before notifying the union. For example, Emanuel announced the plan to privatize primary care clinics for a potential savings of $10 million before the union had been consulted. 

Privatization has also made it much harder for unions, consumer groups and others to monitor the quality and equity of city services, the union says. Based on anecdotal reports, advocates doubt that all of the patients who used to depend on public primary-care clinics have been able to get care at the privatized clinics – a concern brought up in the community budget hearings. But it is nearly impossible to find out, since the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t cover private contractors.

A leash on privatization

Nearly all spectators and reporters left the chambers after the budget vote, missing the introduction of a privatization-oversight ordinance that could potentially be very significant for Chicago public employees and taxpayers.

Thirty-two out of the council’s 50 councilmen co-sponsored the Privatization Accountability and Transparency Ordinance, which mandates that before privatizing any service, the city must study its cost-effectiveness. This might seem an obvious idea, but currently the city can and does wait to run such studies until after a contract is awarded. The study must also prove that the economic benefits of privatization outweigh the public benefits of city-run services.

The ordinance mandates that the city work with public employees and union leaders to address quality-of-service issues before turning to a private contractor. This is an important provision to many union leaders, since it is widely believed that city governments allow public services to deteriorate intentionally or through neglect and then use the poor service as a reason to turn it over to the private sector. The ordinance also requires at least one public city council committee hearing be held on service-privatization plans, as it is for asset-privatization plans.

In support of the ordinance, the Chicago Federation of Labor and AFSCME Council 31 issued a statement citing concerns over past privatization deals, including Daley’s parking meter leasing and Emanuel’s health clinic privatization. Any time the city considers taking jobs away from residents and outsourcing them to private companies, it owes those workers a fair chance to keep their jobs,” said CFL president Jorge Ramirez in a statement.

The ordinance was introduced by South Side councilman Roderick T. Sawyer, and needs to pass a committee and then the full council to become city policy.

I don’t believe there are no good privatization deals,” said a statement by Sawyer, who praised and voted for the 2013 budget. I just think we should be clear about which deals are in the best interest of the city and which are not. I have a concern about touting monetary savings if we haven’t thought about the people that will lose a job, the families that could lose a home and the local businesses that could lose a loyal customer.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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