Chicago has to get creative — and firm — about finding ways to save money

Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed this week to challenge the practice of three employees on every garbage truck and minimum staffing rules for every fire truck. Good for her! But let’s keep going.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It’s time to put a lot of Chicago’s sacred cows out to pasture.

On Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed to take on two of them: the use of three employees per garbage truck and minimum staffing rules for Chicago Fire Department equipment.

It was a good start, but a lot more cows gotta go, too.

Lightfoot made this public commitment at a time when Chicago is being hammered by the pandemic, with city revenues dropping and taxpayers facing a $94 million property tax increase next year. The mayor has also proposed that property taxes be allowed to rise by the rate of inflation every year after to avoid the yo-yo impact of crazy big hikes all at once.

We can’t argue against a tax hike, or against the mayor’s threat of layoffs. Not in this time of economic crisis. But as we wrote more than a year ago, when skyrocketing pension obligations were squeezing the city’s spending plans, there are many smart ways Chicago can spend less money.

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“Many of these things are elephants in the room that we have known about since the last fiscal crisis, and we let that last crisis go to waste,” Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson told us on Friday. “We do not have the luxury of letting this crisis go to waste.”

Here are seven ways Chicago could cut costs, though in several cases it will take tough collective bargaining negotiations.

  • A hard look at the Fire Department budget. Chicago already has started moving away from the old rule of requiring five firefighters per truck. In some instances, trucks are permitted to leave a firehouse with four. But the City Council traditionally has not examined the Fire Department budget as closely as some other agency budgets to achieve savings, in part because firefighters have a strong political voice in the city.

As the number of calls for ambulances goes up, the number of calls for fire trucks has declined. Often, an emergency health call is answered by a fire truck instead of an ambulance because the department has not been reshaped to match changing needs. Reducing minimum staffing requirements without compromising safety would help make the department more efficient and save money. In a 2011 report, Ferguson estimated the savings would be more than $63 million a year.

  • Garbage crews. Does Chicago really need three workers per garbage truck? On some blocks you can see three-person municipal crews in the alley while a single-person commercial garbage truck drives by to make a pickup at an apartment complex. City crews might work 12 to 14 alleys a day, which is a busy schedule, but the rules could be changed, for example, to let the driver get out and help pick up garbage.
  • City clerk and city treasurer. Eliminating the independently elected offices of city clerk and city treasurer could save money. These two officials perform administrative functions that could be handled within the mayor’s office by the chief financial officer, comptroller and budget office.
  • Contract renewals. Some big contracts are given extensions year after year without returning to the City Council for a rebid. Rebidding these contracts might save significant money. It also could open the door to competition.
  • Search warrant reform. Poorly executed search warrants cost the city millions of dollars in lawsuits, usually because police go to the wrong address or don’t show warrants and point guns at innocent people. Rewrite the rules and review the approval process.
  • Management fees. The city spends millions of dollars to manage pension investments. Trimming those expenses could give the city a fiscal shot in the arm. The city should look at turning more to private fund managers.
  • Motor truck drivers. The city pays more for municipal truck drivers than it needs to. Like garbage truck drivers, the motor truck drivers don’t get out of their trucks. They drive other workers to small jobs and then drive them back, requiring a larger crew than necessary. In 2011, Ferguson estimated the city could save $18 million a year by getting rid of unneeded truck driver positions. Even a rule change that says drivers are allowed to assist laborers could save significant money.

Lightfoot should consider, as well, joining with other leaders to get the Federal Reserve to make low-interest, long-term loans of 20 to 50 years available to cities and states that are dealing with the pandemic crisis.

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