The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Cutting to the Bone

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jul 27, 2007 1:30PM

Have you dropped by Grant Park this summer for the city's Movies in the Park? Even if you haven't, there are a whole bunch of great movies playing in a park near you.

2007_7_parks.JPGWhy are we bring this up in a post on politics? Because it's one of the many things that we love about Chicago: it connects us more with who we are as a city of neighborhoods. We were thinking about this earlier this week as we were sprawled out on a blanket in the park, covertly sipping cheap red wine and enjoying Double Indemnity.

Getting together with friends and neighbors to kick it in the park and watch classic movies is one of the many benefits to living in a gigantic metropolis, something that a city with a budget for parks and recreation and creative leadership can do. It's part of what living here, working here, and yes, paying taxes here, makes this city such an awesome place to live.

So when we read articles in the press about how the Mayor is asking his departments to cut back on spending - to the tune of 2% across the board, we have to wonder what kind of impact that will have on the services that we use and enjoy.

When it comes to funding public works - be it schools, roads, or the kinds of intangibles that give a city it's personality - there are often no easy answers. Does the city raise taxes? Does it cut services and programs perceived as frivolous? “We always turn to management improvements first," said Chicago's Chief Financial Officer Paul Volpe.

Based on past experiences, it would seem that the city is setting the table for a tax increase, given the decline in the housing market and the tough times that many cities (not just Chicago) are facing in the current economic climate. The lack of support at the federal level (the war in Iraq is quickly catching up on half a billion dollars, a number that will be inaccurate in just a few weeks) doesn't make things any easier. The lack of management innovations, however, have put Chicago in the precarious position of having to pay for the patronage of the past today. Much has been made of the cost of defending the city from allegations of police abuse under Jon Burge, and while cutting Burge off might save a few bucks, it's only a few.

We're not going to enumerate point by tedious point all the ways that the city could wisely save money. The would eat up far more bandwidth than Chicagoist could ever hope to occupy in our corner of the Web. We will leave you, however, with some ideas.

In 1992, when Stephen Goldsmith became mayor of Indianapolis, he presented both the city government and public sector workers with a new challenge: managed competition. The essence of this management experiment was that public sector units would compete with the private sector for contract work in the city. The local government supported those units by giving them the tools necessary to put together a competitive bid for work that normally would be performed exclusively by the municipal government. City contracts went to the lowest bidder. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of contracts didn't go to private companies; in fact, many of those bids went to public units in the city government. The by-product of this management innovation was that the city's leadership (the Republican mayor and his political appointees) was confronted with the true costs of patronage, and was obligated to trim much of the fat off the public payroll at the middle management level. This was no easy feat for the newly elected mayor of Indianapolis, who had political favors to pay back, and found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to eliminate city jobs among people that he had hired. Even more surprising was the increase in productivity that the city experienced among front-line workers, who were now deeply motivated to increase productivity and cut costs, often resulting in more efficient work and larger bonuses for city workers that developed these cost cutting measures. Even more stunning was the fact that much of this work was done withing the framework of collective bargaining agreements, leaving union contracts largely intact.

Chicago is no Indianapolis, and management innovations such as managed competition certainly have their pitfalls. We raise this example, however, to point out the lack of thought, the dearth of big ideas that sometimes permeates the Fifth Floor of City Hall. For the Second City, a metropolis of 2.9 million people, we'd like to see bigger answers than just across the board cuts in budgets and more tax increases. Why can't Chicago be a model for other cities? Why do we always have to lag behind when it comes to new ideas, even ones that are risky? Raising taxes on city residents while cutting back on services might balance the budget in the short term, but wouldn't we all be better off if the chief executive of the City of Chicago, our elected leader, proposed and supported more imaginative ways to deliver the best of what we all dream of? Even in failure, such innovations might also suggest success.