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New ideas — and a little more hope — for avoiding city layoffs during the pandemic

The best development for Chicago and other big cities in the last week was the election of Joe Biden as president. He favors a pandemic relief package worth as much as $3.5 trillion.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaking at a news conference on Nov. 5.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nobody wants to raise property taxes.

Nobody wants to throw people out of work during a pandemic.

Those two priorities should drive every discussion in Chicago about how to close a $1.2 billion city budget shortfall for next year. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed a budget that compromises both of those priorities, calling for a $94 million property tax hike and the possible laying off of 350 unionized workers, but she’s made it clear she’s open to practical alternatives.

Along those lines, the best development for Chicago in the last week was the election of Joe Biden for president. Biden has pushed for a federal pandemic relief package worth as much as $3.5 trillion, with a big part of the money going to cities and states.

As president, Biden could have a tough time getting that big a relief package if Republicans maintain control of the Senate. But as he has said many times, this is hardly a blue-state-versus-red-state issue. The pandemic has devastated the finances of cities and states across the country.

Also welcome this week was a Chicago Federation of Labor report listing a series of specific ways the city could chop $272 million in costs to avert layoffs and, possibly, the tax hike.

In an editorial late last month, we ourselves proposed a number of ways the city might cut costs. We included reforms advocated by the city’s inspector general, such as reducing the number of workers on garbage crews, that are opposed by different unions.

Now the CFL has countered with a number of compelling ideas of its own.

The CFL argues that the city could save $151.4 million a year by reining in health care costs. This would be done, in part, by “equalizing” health care contributions between union and non-union employees, making greater use of telemedicine and implementing new programs to identify “medical billing errors and overcharges.” New employees would be required to participate in PPO plans for “at least the first year.”

The CFL, which has an ownership interest in the Sun-Times, says the city could save tens of millions of dollars by reducing the number of mid-level managers, moving to a ratio of one supervisor for every 10 employees from the current ratio of one for every seven. As Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reported, the city employs 2,393 supervisors at an annual cost of $270.6 million.

Among the CFL’s other suggestions are that the city staff its Office of Public Safety Administration with civilian employees instead of 150 sworn police officers, require verbal verification that a police response is necessary before sending officers out when an automated burglar alarm goes off and renegotiate the city’s towing contract.

We see a common thread in many of the cost-savings suggestions proposed by this editorial page, the CFL and, to a lesser extent, the Progressive Caucus of the City Council: It’s stuff Chicago should be doing even if there were no pandemic.

Put it all on the table. Let the best ideas prevail.

If ever there were an opportunity to not let a crisis go to waste, this is it.

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