We are told it would be unfair to reduce city employee pensions in any way, though pension fund debt threatens to crush Chicago as sure as any Godzilla.
This is true. It is not fair. Painfully necessary, we would argue, but not fair.
Let’s propose a swap, then, that might reduce the need to tinker with pensions, at least to some marginal extent, while at the same time reducing another kind of unfairness, this time to taxpayers — outdated union work rules that drive up the cost of government. Savings from reforming work rules could be put toward funding pensions.
Chicago puts three workers on a garbage truck. Private trash haulers get by with two. In 2011, City Hall’s inspector general estimates, that cost Chicago more than $19 million.
Chicago puts five firefighters on a fire truck. Many suburbs assign four, with no compromising of public safety. In 2012, the IG estimates, that cost Chicago more than $70 million.
Chicago gives employees 12 to 14 holidays. Folks in the private sector typically get about 10. In 2012, the IG estimates, that cost Chicago an extra $5.5 million.
Chicago employs trained firefighters to do fire-prevention work, such as building inspections. Cities across the countries hire civilians to do those jobs, at less pay and just as well. In 2012, the IG estimates, that cost the city an extra $1.5 million.
We could go on, but you get the point. We have consistently argued that Chicago’s financial crisis — a $20 billion shortfall in four pension systems — almost certainly will require pension reform and higher taxes. But neither of those two things should happen until we are confident our elected leaders are exploring every other potential source of savings, short run and long run.
Should the union work rules described above, as well as others, be changed? On the face of it, we’d say so, but there may be arguments to the contrary we have yet to hear. It is also true that many of these rules are protected by long-term contracts.
And some rules might be off base in the opposite direction, burdening workers to save the city a buck. The streets department, for example, can keep a worker on probation for as long as four years. How does that boost morale?
The City Council should move quickly to hire a true expert — and not former Ald. Helen Shiller — to run its new independent budget office so that it, and not just the mayor’s office, can drive such cost-savings initiatives.