Nice perks for the po-po | Bleader

Nice perks for the po-po

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Aldermen have expressed frustration, fear, skepticism, and in a few isolated cases anger over the mayor's plan to collect nearly $300 million in new taxes. But most of their hand-wringing has been over the kinds of taxes that might be levied, rather than over the notion of tax hikes per se. The administration's pitch for $108 million in new property taxes has galled even longtime mayoral allies like 45th Ward alderman Pat Levar.

"The questions are about this tax versus another," one alderman said to a couple of reporters before police department budget hearings this week. "There aren't enough questions about how and where we can cut."

The police department is the last place the City Council is going to look to trim--even criticizing "a few bad apples" in the police department is generally considered a dumb political move. In this tough budget year, the mayor has proposed hiring 50 more officers, and aldermen have griped that they need to find money to hire more.

When interim police superintendent Dana Starks testified Monday evening, most aldermen played their expected roles, spending their Q & A time praising their district commanders and condemning those who dare to wonder if the department is plagued by corruption and abuse.

But a few tough questions about police spending came from Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, normally a soft-spoken, deferential presence in the council, even when he bucks the mayor's lead.

Almost one-fifth of the city's proposed $5.9 billion budget will be devoted to police personnel costs. Beale read some of the line items in the proposed police budget aloud and asked Starks and his deputies to explain: $28.8 million for police overtime; $3.9 million for "holiday premium pay"; $37.1 million for "duty availability."

"What is 'duty availability'?" Beale asked.

"It's a contractural benefit paid to sworn officers," Starks said. One of his assistant deputy superintendents clarified: officers are paid $730 every three months, on top of their salaries, to be "available" in case they're called in to work an extra or emergency shift. If they report for extra duty, they're paid overtime wages as well.

"So each officer is getting $730 a quarter to be available? My, my, my," Beale said, shaking his head. "Is anyone tracking who's working a second job and isn't available?"

"No," Starks said.

Officers will also be paid a total of $11.5 million if they don't take furlough time they're entitled to, Starks confirmed, and $24 million each year to cover the cost of uniforms. That last expense works out to $600 per quarter for each officer.

"Is there anything in place to find out if the uniform allowance is being spent on that?" Beale asked.

"No," Starks said. "Just on the annual inspection day."

"Well, I can put aside a nice shirt and tie and come in looking real good for inspection," Beale said. "Officers are paid to be available, compensated for furloughs and uniforms, but we don't know if they're using it for uniforms or not--all that comes out to $153 million when we're being asked to slap the taxpayers for $300 million--"

Carrie Austin, the chair of the budget committee, cut him off. "Alderman, I didn't give you time for a speech," she said.

Beale offered a half-hearted near-apology before wrapping up his remarks. "I think we can cut some of the fat here," he said.

Starks explained that it's not that easy, since most of those expenses are written into contracts with the Fraternal Order of Police. The floor was then turned over to Ariel Reboyras, the 30th Ward alderman, who told Starks he had "the most difficult job in the world" but that crime fighting in Chicago was working. "We are the best in the nation," he said.

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