Not surprisingly, Mayor Daley’s proposals to lay off employees and reduce some city services—from trash pickup around the holidays to public health programming, community policing, and free jumping jacks—have been about as popular as Muslims at a McCain rally. The dire consequences of these cuts have made daily headlines.
So far, though, critics haven’t offered many concrete counterproposals—I’ve heard some talk about dipping into TIF funds, renegotiating some expensive contracts, reducing management-level staffing instead of front-line workers, and other “efficiencies” that arguably should have been considered to save taxpayers’ money well before the city’s deficit bulged to nearly $500 million.
It may not change the debate this year, but union leaders and some aldermen are getting louder in their charges that the city’s entire financing and budgetary process is broken—and at least as much to blame for the fix we’re in as downturns in the economy. Since the only set of budgetary data comes from a single source—an office whose employees report to the mayor—some critics say they’re not even sure they can accept the city’s deficit estimates.
“We don’t know the scope,” says Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, which represents about 5,000 city workers. “The city claims it’s about $200 million this year and $300 million next—but we can’t say that’s the case. There’s not an open question that the city has a budget problem. But there’s a lack of transparency, a lack of openness. You have to rely on the mayor’s people to get an accounting. There’s not a lot of independent information we think you have to have to come up with solutions.”
Last year a few aldermen grumbled about the need for an independent office to scrutinize city business, something on the par of the GAO at the federal level. But nothing’s come of it, and there's obviously not time to get anything in place for this year. The city projects its budget problems will continue for the next three or four years, at least, though that still doesn't mean the process will change—even supporters seem hesitant to lobby for creating a new government office at a time when the city’s strapped for cash, though the alternative appears increasingly inadequate: aldermen, most with little history of independence, have a few days to try to analyze hundreds of pages of line-item spending and revenue recommendations without any comprehensive alternatives. And during this time they’re still supposed to be taking care of the regular business in their wards.
“But it’s not just the issue of having the time and resources to do this,” says Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell. “We’ve got to have the will.”