Don’t raise property taxes, Lightfoot told, tackle firefighter staffing, garbage fees and other sacred cows instead

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall argued Chicago taxpayers and business owners ravaged by the pandemic can’t take more punishment. Instead, he’s urging the mayor to wield the budget ax and make some tough choices.

SHARE Don’t raise property taxes, Lightfoot told, tackle firefighter staffing, garbage fees and other sacred cows instead
President of the Civic Federation Laurence Msall, left, in 2019; Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, in June.

President of the Civic Federation Laurence Msall, left, is interviewed by Fran Spielman in 2019; Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, speaks during a news conference on June 29, 2020.

Rich Hein, Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall is urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot to steer clear of raising property taxes in the middle of a pandemic and erase a $1.2 billion shortfall by confronting the sacred cows of city government.

Reconcile the number of firehouses with a decline in fire calls and a spike in medical emergencies and eliminate minimum staffing levels that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

Switch the $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee to a volume-based charge that incentivizes recycling, lengthen the time between pick-ups and reduce the size of garbage collection crews — from three employees on a truck to as few as one.

Eliminate a healthy chunk of the 847 sworn vacancies and more than 200 civilian openings in the Chicago Police Department and reduce the number of top brass in the exempt ranks raking in six-figure salaries.

Instead of laying off 1,000 city employees to achieve Lightfoot’s $200 million in targeted savings from organized labor, propose a “more humane,” shared-sacrifice plan that includes pay cuts or unpaid furlough days for all city employees and offers early retirement to reduce the payroll.

None of those solutions will come easy. All will encounter fierce political resistance.

But Msall argued there is no other way to “fix it ourselves,” as Lightfoot put it, after giving up hope that Congress will ride to the rescue with replacement revenue for cities and states.

“In Evergreen Park, in Evanston, in Oak Park, you often see a garbage service with one driver picking up all of the garbage. … They can also drive the truck, with a steering wheel, oftentimes on either side,” Msall said.

“There are always places, because of the narrow alleys, where you might need to make accommodations. But, if not now, facing a $1.2 billion shortfall, when would the city be incented to follow the best business practices of other municipalities? When would labor be willing to improve its efficiency and deliver more for existing dollars?”

Lightfoot managed to avert a massive post-election property tax increase that had become standard fare for Chicago mayors by precariously balancing her first budget with one-time revenues.

Even after enduring an avalanche of tax increases to chip away at a $30 billion pension crisis, beleaguered Chicago taxpayers are bracing for more of the same.

But, Msall argued Friday that homeowners and business owners can’t take any more.

“In the midst of the economic disruption, the high level of … retail establishments being vacant or having closed, the high level of unemployment of so many Chicago residents, a property tax increase at this time would be very difficult — not only for the citizens and businesses to absorb, but also politically,” Msall said.

Chicago Firefighters Union President Jim Tracy has acknowledged he and Lightfoot are “miles apart” from a long-term contract. He has made a strong case for maintaining the minimum staffing rule that requires every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees.

“It can’t be done by two or three people. It has to be by five persons — period. We cannot do our job without it,” Tracy said last month on the day he signed a four-year contract with a 10% pay raise, all but 2.5% of it retroactive.

On Friday, Msall urged the mayor to hang tough — even though she got a pivotal endorsement from Local 2 during her run-off campaign against County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

“If there’s a major fire, surrounding suburbs and fire departments respond as well. That should be taken into account in examining whether we have too many firehouses because it’s based on a system that’s been in place for over 50 years,” Msall said.

“Do we really need so many required people on the truck? We’ve gone so far in Illinois as to guarantee in state statute the staffing levels of various fire apparatus. That should be up to the municipalities. And the current structure of 24-hours-on, followed by several days off. Is that really the best model for guaranteeing coverage? There is a lot in the firefighters contract that is more historic than having to do with modern firefighting.”

Lightfoot has asked organized labor to work with her to identify $200 million in savings.

Msall said it would take 1,000 layoffs to save $200 million a year.

“It’s definitely in everyone’s best interest if the city works with its organized labor partners to come up with a plan that makes the most humane cuts possible,” Msall said.

“It could be a series of furlough days. … We’ve seen as many as a week or two weeks under former Mayor [Richard M.] Daley. It could be a lot larger than that.”

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