Some Chicago truths are incontrovertible: Winters are too long and cold; most of the professional sports teams will invariably break our hearts; and Chicago aldermen instinctively reject good government suggestions from outsiders like they're aliens. So it's no surprise that Inspector General Joe Ferguson's recent budget-cutting suggestions were declared DOA moments after they arrived on the desks of the 50 City Council members.
Reduce the crews on firetrucks?
Privatize and modernize garbage collection?
Get more cops off desk duty and on the streets?
Charge tax-exempts for their water?
Eliminate free sewer service for seniors?
Do without those mostly ineffectual Loop traffic aides?
You'd think--from the chorus of hysterical, hyperbolic sky-is-falling reactions of Chicago's gabbiest aldermen--that Ferguson was recommending bank robbery and drug dealing to balance the budget, and endorsing Al Capone for mayor.
It's true that most of the recommendations in the 50-page report are controversial, and several were floated and rejected in the past because they're politically unpopular. And yes, the report had a rushed feel to it, and sidestepped a more serious and systematic look at how hundreds if not thousands of city jobs might be combined or eliminated, and scores of contracts reduced dramatically or tossed out altogether.
But Chicago is a fiscal mess, facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, counting pension obligations. And Mayor Daley's final spending plan for 2011 is smoke and mirrors, chewing gum and paper clips -- balanced with, among other one-time revenues, Skyway and parking privatization "reserve" funds that were supposed to last decades.
In the mayor's defense, the goal was to avoid tax and fee increases on the eve of the February election, which makes sense politically. But that'll be scant comfort to the man or woman who replaces him on the 5th floor of City Hall next Spring. So Ferguson, who enjoys enough job security and political insulation to take unpopular stands, thanks to the provisions of the IG statute, has equipped the citizens of Chicago with a vital good government tool by putting many of the most sacred budget cows on the table and asking the aldermen to give them serious consideration.
The BGA's not endorsing or rejecting any of the ideas in Ferguson's $250 million plan--that's for the elected officials to decide--but we're convinced they merit a full public debate, out in the open, with the vigorous give and take that characterizes a real democracy. And we're glad to see this IG expanding the scope of his office, like his predecessor did before him.
Investigations are still the IG's bread and butter. We get it because that's also our primary BGA mission. But exposing and disclosing are only half of the reform battle. The IG, like the BGA, must also "propose." To get the options out on the table and into the mix. Ferguson's done that.
NOTE: In the next week, we hope to post a conversation between me and the IG himself--stay tuned.