"The Park District will only cover one third of local park improvements." That's what General Superintendent Tim Mitchell announced at the July meeting of the Chicago Park District. If a community wants a new park or add to an old park, it will have raise one third of the money and beg the remainder from other government sources.
Welcome to the world of modern American local government. Starved for dollars, local units of government - cities, counties and states - can't provide basic services and are awash in red ink. Increasingly, citizens are asked to pony up and become fundraisers in order to secure a new library, a tot lot or books for their elementary school. Under the mantra of "win-win" partnerships, local governments are striking a bewildering array of deals with private institutions and corporations. These deals yield fast cash and sometimes involve selling or leasing public assets. One of the assumptions underneath many privatization deals is the idea that private enterprise can run things more effectively than a unit of government.
This new arrangement of market-based government might work out if your community is wealthy or politically connected. You can afford to pay for the missing services you desire and you can swing deals that will benefit your community. For instance, where I live in Lincoln Park, a fairly well-to-do area in Chicago's Near North, the local elementary school has four independent nonprofit organizations attached to it. These groups are run by parents and pump over one hundreds thousand dollars into the school every year. On a larger scale, the City of Chicago sold the Chicago Skyway Bridge, a 7.8-mile toll road built in 1958 to connect the Dan Ryan Expressway to the Indiana Tollway. The City of Chicago got $1.83 billion from a 99-tear lease to The Skyway Concession Company , a joint-venture between the Australian Macquarie Infrastructure Group and Spanish Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte S.A..
But what is the real state of our city finances? Is this trend toward self-financing and privatization really in the best interest of the people? Is Chicago so poor that it has to sell the Skyway and is contemplating selling Midway Airport? Is the Board of Education so strapped that parents all over the city tax themselves through never-ending fundraising in order to add staff, purchase computers and basic supplies for our public schools? Is the Park District so needy that it demands citizens to raise or find two thirds of the funding for local park improvements? Is the city so needy that it is entering into partnerships with anyone with cash or clout that strip the public out of "public assets"
And at the end of the local government food chain is us - the citizens, the tax payers. Is this trend in local government really serving us? That's the question this column will explore. I call it "Connecting the Dots" and my premise is that a series of related conditions is causing very serious problems on the ground in our cities across the country - and, most expressly, right here in Chicago.
The chain of conditions looks like this:(1) Militarized Nation - At the federal level we are spending way too much money on war, the military and weapons systems. By one account the War in Iraq has cost $545 billion in direct appropriations to date. But the true cost is much higher.
(2) Incompetent State - In Illinois our state government is in a state of perpetual deadlock where our Democratic leadership is locked in a no-winner pissing match. The result is our budget is in a shambles and event the simplist elements of governance grind on without resolution. The Daily Herald reported on July 28:
"In The Three Trillion Dollar War, Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes cast a spotlight on expense items that have been hidden from the U.S. taxpayer, including not only big-ticket items like replacing military equipment (being used up at six times the peacetime rate) but also the cost of caring for thousands of wounded veterans--for the rest of their lives. Shifting to a global focus, the authors investigate the cost in lives and economic damage within Iraq and the region...the authors measure what the U.S. taxpayer's money would have produced if instead it had been invested in the further growth of the U.S. economy." From http://threetrilliondollarwar.org/about.
. (3) Corrupt City - Chicago is the Capital of Clout and the Fix. There have been so many scandals since I re-located here in 1980 that it would take a small encyclopedia to chronicle them all. Well, let's see. Our former governor is in jail. Our former City Clerk has recently been released from the pokey. Operation Silver Shovel was an FBI investigation that started in 1992 and which resulted in corruption convictions for 18 individuals, six of whom were current or former city aldermen. In 2004, the city was treated to revelations about a $40-million-a-year "Trucks for Hire" scandal, which called for the city to lease hundreds of dump trucks, whose owners often bribed city officials to get work on city job sites. Here's contemporary account:
"The unrelenting feud between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan overshadowed the governor's unveiling Thursday of a new, $25 billion plan to improve roads, transit and schools across the state -- without new gambling to fund it...scores of social service providers across the state are reeling under massive budget cuts to substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation programs. Cuts have also hurt transit providers in Chicago, such as Pace" and Metra, and forest preserve agencies." From: http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=224771
The latest city official to visit Club Fed is former Alderman Arenda Troutman who pleaded guilty to mail and tax fraud in early August, 2008. Also, the Chicago Park District is under federal investigation for alleged corruption in the running of its marinas - operated, of course, by a private firm. Can we calculate the cost of corruption to the citizens of Chicago? There's the money lost to corrupt contractors who overcharge us for lousy or even non-existent service. There's the millions spent every year on legal settlements for persistent problems that should be fixed once and for all. And there's the cost of lost opportunities to solve problems and improve services when hacks and the unqualified run important city programs.
"Last week, John "Quarters" Boyle was arrested on federal charges for taking bribes from companies to stay in the city's Hired Truck program. Prosecutors say he took cash, steaks, Marshall Field's gift certificates, and contributions to his favorite politicians. In 1992, Boyle was convicted stealing $4 million coins from IL Toll Highway Authority, hence his nickname. Mayor Daley says it's common for the city to hire ex-convicts to give them a second chance but he says he embarrassed by the latest scandal to his administration." From: http://chicagoist.com/2004/10/12/chicago_hired_truck_program_what_a_scandal.php.
(4) Screwed Citizen - No money for school improvements? No funds for a new library. Or a clinic. Or mass transit. Or expanding our parks? Does your city seem broke, incompetent, arrogant, unaccountable and impenetrable? Congratulations, you are a Screwed Citizen. Look around - you are in good company. It's not a pretty picture. I hope to bring this picture to life by connecting the dots in Chicago. I'll start by telling the story of my own involvement in the fight to stop the privatization of Lincoln Park, the jewel in Chicago's lake front park system.