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Emanuel shelves plan to privatize 311 non-emergency system

In a key concession that could help sway some aldermen to support his overall budget package, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backed away from a plan to privatize the non-emergency 311 call system. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday shelved his controversial plan to privatize Chicago’s 311 non-emergency system after a rebellion by more than two-thirds of the City Council.

Hours before the mayor’s latest retreat, 36 aldermen signed a letter to the mayor urging Emanuel to reconsider. They argued that services so pivotal to their residents should not be out-sourced. They must be provided by Chicagoans who know the city and its neighborhoods.

They argued that the jobs of 73 employees represented by AFSCME Council 31 be preserved.

“It’s just out-sourcing. It’s just the questions. You call someone … at McDonald’s and you might get someone in India. We wanted people here in Chicago who live in Chicago and know our city,” said Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th).

“We didn’t want anyone else privatized. We didn’t want anyone else doing the 311 system. Nobody knows our city but the people who live here. We felt that our services would be jeopardized. The most important thing is laying off city employees. We don’t want to lay off employees.

Emanuel has argued that the privatization plan has less to do with the $1 million in savings and more to do with the $40 million or $50 million that needs to be spent to upgrade what was once a ground-breaking, award-winning system.

But even that argument didn’t fly with recalcitrant aldermen. They argued that the enterprise funds used to support water and sewer services could be used to support at least part of the 311 upgrade because water and sewer services are among the calls answered by 311.

Aldermen remember only too well the nightmare of the botched transition from city control to private operation of Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters after former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s reviled plan to lease the meters.

The last thing they wanted to do was to risk having the same thing happen at 311, which provides city services for which aldermen are held responsible.

Emanuel’s decision to take the plan off the table — even if it risks putting the capital improvements on hold — is certain to build good will with aldermen headed into the Oct. 28 vote on Emanuel’s lower-the-boom budget.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said the capital improvements will likely have to be put on hold now that the privatization deal has been shelved. O’Connor argued that enterprise funds can be raided to some extent — but those monies, he added, “don’t get you where you need to be.”

Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, was among the few aldermen who was not concerned about the mayor’s plan to privatize 311.

Burke argued that many other municipalities have done it seamlessly. And Burke argued that the contract could be written to stipulate that only Chicagoans can serve as call takers.