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Interview: Alderman Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward (Part 2)

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Sep 17, 2010 7:00PM

2010_09_17_wags.jpg Below is more from my interview last week with 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack in which we touch on schools, unions, and more on the budget.

Previously: Part 1

C: On the issue of schools, you’re on the Education and Child Care committee. There was a report in the Tribune about the failing schools and a report on WBEZ about the Chicago Teachers Union wanting an elected board and president. And then there’s the funding crisis. How do you go about, first of all, addressing that funding crisis? We’re talking about mass teacher layoffs, about squeezing 37 kids into a class, how do you go about the bottom-line issue of funding those schools?

SW: Well, if we go a few seconds back, to the TIFs, if you close some of those out or suspend them for one or two years, you can bring in tens of millions of dollars. It’s not the amount people think, I think [State Rep.] John Fritchey said you could get $250-300 million. I don’t you think you could get that much but you could definitely get an infusion from the TIFs. And you should reform the TIF system. It should have started at the state level a long time ago, they should have tightened the regulations on the city a long time ago as a General Assembly and said, “Sorry, mayor, we’re not going to let you get away with this.” And there are ways to go about doing that. Denver’s done a great job of it and I think Milwaukee and Madison are other places that have great plans in place to do that.

I’ve indicated I’d like to see an elected board as well. I had that discussion with a group of teachers from CORE.

C: And an elected board president?

SW: Yes. Because the scores haven’t really improved a whole lot under Mayor Daley.

C: I believe the Trib report said almost 40 percent of the city’s high schools had failing scores and 68 percent of high schools had a “D” average.

SW: What was it 15 years ago? I don’t think it’s changed. And I think part of the problem is he has created the power to appoint virtually every chair and every commissioner in the city on every body like the CTA, the CHA, the CPS. Ron Huberman might be good for some things but I think if you bounce somebody around like that too much it dilutes their ability to be a change-maker.

C: Someone who’s never taught a class?

SW: Right, you have no relationship to teachers. And maybe he did. I mean, I taught in Africa for a little while but that doesn’t mean I’m a teacher. I’ve worked with kids over the years but that doesn’t mean I know how to handle the CPS.

So how do you do it? I think you’ve got to work with the state because a lot of funding comes from the state. I’ve been on the educational facilities task force for a few weeks now with Rep. Soto and they’ve called me up and said, “You’ve handle a couple of these school closures in your ward, you’ve helped turn around three or four of these schools with new principles and creating LFCs, and we’d like you to help us get through that process of how CPS has handled it.”

An elected body would be important. You’d have to go back and try that or some type of hybrid where there’s accountability so that the mayor can’t just pluck a guy out and throw him somewhere else and say, “Oh, you did a great job over there so now I’m going to send you over to the billing department or the CTA or the airport.”

When you’re talking about the schools, the Renaissance 2010 plan has kind of gone bust and there’s been no one at the helm that’s been a teacher. And the teachers will tell you there’s been no one in the top 50 or 100 people that are in CPS, that none of them have been teachers on that whole side. And they don’t create a good relationship with the teachers. And that’s not to say that - I’ve told every organization whether it’s police, through the unions, the laborers, the teamsters, and groups like CORE, especially when they had the school closures, I don’t care what organization you are, even if it’s aldermen… if you have bad aldermen as well, you have to root them out. When you have people that aren’t performing in an organization, they should be replaced. So if you have bad teachers, you have to hold them accountable and root them out.

C: Speaking of unions, that’s been a sticking point with the mayor, battling with unions. Do you see that as a major challenge for the next mayor and how have you gone about your own negotiating with the unions? What kind of reaction have you gotten from the approach you mentioned?

SW: It’s kind of interesting. I’ll give you another example. With the recycling issue that’s come up, the privatization, the union called up and said, “Hey, you need to help us put a stop to this.” And so I asked them, “Well, what’s your plan?” They said, “Well, we’re telling all the alderman that they’re going to lose their ability to control recycling in the wards. It’s one of those things they have their hands in that they get to control.” I went, “Really? I get to control recycling in my ward? No. I don’t. The mayor and the commissioner control when those guys get pulled to another ward.” Which they do all the time and that might be retaliation, I don’t know. On any given day they’ll pull three or four trucks we’re a day or two, three, four days behind or we have to wait two weeks for the next round.

I said, “I don’t look at it that way.” I look at the privatization issue and couch it in different terms. It’s another way of selling off another asset without really looking at the core causes; we should be focusing on how to better manage it. Other cities recycle and they don’t seem to have a problem the way we do. I think it’s a management problem.

I told the president of the group, “Don’t look at it that way because you’re going to lose and he’ll privatize it overnight if you think the alderman are going to jump in front looking at it that way. He won’t care about that, he’s proven that with the parking meters. What you need to do, if he says, ‘Waste Management can do a better job,’ you better sit down with some people who actually know how to manage or have a business plan and say, ‘Wait a minute, if Waste Management comes up with a plan, here’s our plan on how to run and how to save money.’”

And he kind of went, “Uh, I don’t understand.” So I said, “Let’s break it down again. Waste Management comes in or BFI and they say, ‘We’re going to do it for $4 million and we can get rid of all these guys,’ you’d better come in and say, ‘We can do it for $3.5 million and here’s how we’re going to trim the fat, cut the waste out of the system and run it better.’” And that’s what I tell most of these guys. I said, “You can’t just block what somebody’s doing and say, “Privatization is going to kill of the group or layoffs are going to hurt the group.’ They might but you’ve never come up with another plan to streamline your own organization.

C: So you don’t have an embattled relationship with the unions.

SW: No, I try to give them an alternative strategy or an alternative solution. But that’s what I do for, whether it’s the unions or the different commissioners and say here’s how I’ve seen it run elsewhere. Here’s how I’ve looked through the government magazines, finance magazines infrastructure investment magazines. I just read it and I see what other cities are doing and I just say here is an alternative that we could try that’s worked somewhere else before you just slash and burn.

C: And those cities, you mentioned earlier, because that’s a question I had, what other cities you consider, you said Portland, Seattle…

SW: For recycling?

C: In general, not just recycling, but in general, when you look at for infrastructure guidance, what cities do you look at? Such as, “Okay so now we have this big change coming to us in six to seven months, but what cities can provide a guide for how we can change things for the better here in Chicago?”

SW: For TIFs I would look at Denver, Milwaukee or Madison, and there are a lot of other examples.

For the recycling, look at Seattle, look at Portland or even New York, which I think the Mayor’s office, the guys from there said they went to New York one time and they got all these great ideas about how to use a grid system, and then they come back and they implement it by ward, which was a political decision. It had nothing to do with managing it well. You saw how the recycling was laid out across the city, you’re basically driving a truck through areas that don’t have any recycling, driving it five or six miles to dump the stuff, you’re wasting a half-hour each way.

Snow or street sweeping: Boston, I’ve looked at that. I’ve looked at Houston in terms of grappling with zoning and development issues because they have a wider expanse. How to do building codes, looking at other cities as well.

C: Getting back to something you mentioned a minute ago about the state and state control and state government. And that they’re so much more screwed than the city. It’s the state of Illinois, in terms of a $13 billion budget gap to start it off. We’re talking about money for the schools, they’ve also promised money to the CTA. This is promised money that I don’t see how this can come in. As a mayor, or an alderman, how do you approach dealing with that gap, when they make these promises and you know there is no way that money will come to the table? Or that it’s going to come to the table at a cost of something else, like mental health centers? How do you rectify that, how do you deal with getting that money without making those cuts?

SW: Like telling the Governor, “We’ll take a hit with mental health centers to the tune of $100 million, but we’ll take the $500 million for the education”? Those are those difficult choices I think the mayor has even talked about, but they never pulled the trigger on. And you know, the state hasn’t come up with a school facilities bill or a plan for 10 years I think it is now. It’s going on close to 10 years. So I think you have to explain to people that either we get the money to rebuild the schools, to keep the numbers down from 37 [students per class]. I think a lot of people, at least a lot of parents, would look at that and say, alright we’re gonna have to streamline these other areas like mental health. They might have to take a hit to do that, but those are choices that everybody else is making in different states and saying, “Ok, we’ve got to do that, and let’s just do it and get it over with and move forward.”

C: But the city is tied to the state in that way for money, and you’re talking about an audit. I think you said in a radio interview the other day, about directing money back into the city. I get the idea of redirecting money with TIFs or you said cutting those contracts, but at the same time there’s still going to be no funding and it seems so goes the state, so goes the city, and vice versa. I don’t mean to sound hopeless or like a pessimist, but I mean, we’re kind of screwed here in a way, right? Until the state gets its act together, is it possible to turn the budget situation in this city around without major action from the state? Can we do it separately?

SW: I think you can. Maybe not entirely. I think you might end up $100-200 million short, just to throw out a number.

C: Still better than $650 million?

SW: Yeah, I mean $650 million was a few months ago.

C: That’s just the preliminary budget.

SW: You might look at some of the other, well, I don’t even want to talk about how disastrous the parking meters were.

C: That’s pretty well established. And that’s money that we can’t get back. We’re screwed.

SW: Unless we break the contract, but then we’d have to pay the money back and we’ll be in court for 50 years. So the issue of having enough money on the table, if you make those other cuts, or if you can’t work with the state, yeah we’ll still be short. But you’d still have to have a balanced budget by the end of the year. That’s just state law. If you don’t, you go bankrupt.

C: But these pools are emptying, the parking meter, the Skyway fund, so again I come back to: these cuts have to come from somewhere. Do you have a specific list of things, like, ‘ok this is what, I don’t want to have to do this,’ because none of these things would be popular, but do you have a list of things that when push comes to shove, and we’re going to have to bite the bullet and cut this, this, this and this. Like you were saying, even with cutting certain contracts, this is not going to be an easy thing to get out of and people are going to hurt for a long time.

SW: Well, who is going to hurt, though?

C: Us. Residents, citizens. I mean, because there’s going to have to be cuts somewhere, at least initially.

SW: Yeah, but there’s a lot of contracts out there that aren’t really…

C: But can those contracts cover this entire budget gap?

SW: If you start out from the beginning then- Let’s say you open up the books and you say here’s all the contracts. And you’re talking about, I’ll just say $700 million, because it might be $600 to $700 million. If you stop the fee waivers for a year, you could maybe, Ald. Brandon Reilly says $300 million.

C: You said $100 million.

SW: I think it might be closer to $100 million. But it’s hard to determine that because the city has refused to do any kind of study. We asked one to be done through the special events committee two years ago, about two years ago, I don’t think it ever happened. So you might get, let’s say $100-150 million, break it even there. The contracts, we have hundreds of millions of dollars, billions in contracts that I think you could look at for at least this year and say “Let’s renegotiate those, let’s redirect that money back in.” That’s a few hundred million.

C: Just in the contracts with the Water Department that you were describing?

SW: Yeah and CDOT and Fleet and Human Services. Maybe not Human Services, there may be a few million there. The human resource department: have you ever seen how much those contracts are?

C: No.

SW: Hundreds and hundreds of millions. Two years ago that’s one of the ones I was pointing at. Why do we have a company like Aon that we’re paying, that has $400 million worth of contracts to tell us how to hire people when we’re in the middle of a hiring freeze.

C: One contract in specific that comes to mind, the police are understaffed like 1,000 to 2,000 officers, and yet I think it was last fall or fall of 2008, Daley signed a contract, $50 to $60 million, to buy new SUVs for the police department.

SW: Yeah, and the police don’t even like those.

C: I see something like these SUVs that police themselves seem split on, they’re not good for high-speed cases. Is that an example? Because that $50 to $60 million can be redirected and that pays first-year policemen’s salaries.

SW: For a year, for at least. And, just looking at the police department, I’ve had police emailing me different ways to get more guys out on the street, the CAPS Department.

C: Well, Weis, I have to think that even he knows his days are numbered, it seems.

SW: Yeah, I’ve said I would fire him. I don’t think he’s worth $300,000 or $315,000 or something.

C: Even with a paycut? $275,000?

SW: Yeah and the other thing is that he isn’t an actual police officer. I think you need that in leadership to have that to command respect. But the CAPS office is one area I’ve had guys say “Why do you have between seven to 10 people in every precinct or district?” With that many guys, you could get them out on the street. There’s little things you can do there to get manpower out on the street. And you can look at some of the contracts there. They are spending a ton of money on databases and weapons that they’re not going to use, trucks that they don’t really like, that aren’t useful. So there are ways to cut back on that.

C: That could be reallocated for…?

SW: Reallocated to bodies. Or getting guys into the training. But there is also another way to do that which is bring in people that have been laid off from other cities that already have police experience. You’ve got them quickly and they’re already able to run out and get on the ground right away.

So that’s just the police department. If you look at each one of those departments, you can also get money from the federal government to help stave off some of this stuff. And just redirect contracts in the Ddepartment of Transportation. I think the Human Resources Department, that’s one of the biggest boondoggles there. Last year, we were talking in these late-night budget hearings, we’re asking, “How did you do the test, how did you create the test for RCCs, which are refuse coordinators, they basically give tickets and tell businesses, ‘hey clean up the ward’?” We’ve had one off and on for three years, but that’s the second in command to the board superintendant, who is doing 20 jobs now instead of the 10 that they are supposed to do, basically cleaning the entire ward, one person, it’s impossible.

They had a consultant come in and do the test. They were paying a consultant millions of dollars to come in and create that test. And all the consultant was doing is going to other RCCs and saying, ‘How do I write all the questions for this?’ And we just wasted millions of dollars. I mean, that stuff goes on every single day. And the mayor, you bring that up, and they sit there and go ‘Yeah we’ll look at it,’ and then it’s the same thing the next year.

So there is absolutely zero commitment from the mayor to stop the consulting contracts that are exorbitant. And to look at its own management team, where you have, literally have, out in O’Hare, six supervisors for one or two people. I mean, that’s just outrageous. And O’Hare might be a separate taxing body, one of those enterprising funds, but it’s still tied into the city somehow. And the other departments have the same thing. If you’re going to lay someone off, don’t lay off the guy that’s picking up trash. Lay off the guy who is driving around in a truck. I just found out there was a guy that was supposed to be assigned to our ward from the water department for the last three years. I never met him.

C: He just never showed up?

SW: I didn’t even know if he was assigned to our ward.

C: He’s getting paid to…?

SW: Work for the ward, at probably $80,000 to $90,000.

C: A year?

SW: Yeah. And there’s a couple others.

C: So you have no idea where he is?

SW: No. I told the commissioner yesterday, I said, “Why don’t you write me a report and tell me where this guy is and what he’s supposed to be doing and how he’s been earning his money for the last three years.” So if that’s going on through a lot of departments... He has 1,500 or more appointed positions. And then a lot of those, hundreds more, are exempt, where they’re basically the “assistant to the assistant supervisor.” That’s where we need the cuts. And that’s tens of millions of dollars. And I might not make it to the $700 million, but I’ll be pretty close.

C: You think so? That’s optimistic.

SW: But we’ll never know if we don’t open the books. So whoever comes in, if they just sit there and go “Hey, we’re gonna ra ra ra.”

C: But then don’t do anything? Well then let me ask you, that leads into this question: should you decide to not run, are there candidates out there that you think, ‘okay, if it’s not me, this guy”? I know there is a big groundswell around David Hoffman because he was one of those guys who really stuck it to Daley before. Would he be an example?

SW: Yeah, he might. Because I know he’s done it. He’s proven himself. I don’t think any of the others have proven themselves.

C: You're sure there is no one else on the board? Obviously if you’re considering running, that means that you think that you are going to do a better job than all the guys’ names that are out there but...

SW: Well, a better job of what absolutely needs to get done, not the popularity contest. And I think Hoffman, he has proven himself as inspector general. He would be a good choice of the people who have kind of been thrown out there. But again, that’s why I’m trying to get all these issues out there and saying “open the books, do these things,” and raise the level of discussion so instead of just sitting here looking at the guys’ pictures in the newspaper and telling everybody how great they are, them actually committing and saying, “Oh yeah, first thing we need to do is open the books.” We have to raise the standard here.

C: So you would look at it—again, I just want to clarify from what we were talking about earlier that you are considering a run at it—you would look at it and you would say, if it just looks like this is turning into a popularity contest, and it’s not going to be worth your time to run, then that’s where you’ll decide to stay with running for alderman

SW: Yes, and I’m perfectly fine with that. I think a lot of people are. But I’m going to take the same set of issues as I’ve done with the aldermen and say, “Hey you want to be the next mayor, here is the agenda that I think the city should be looking at for the next few years.” And I’ve already started working on that with other people and other aldermen that I’ve spoken to, and I’ve said, “I want a progressive agenda that is going to put our city into the twenty-first century.” And so guys like Joe Moore (49th) and Ricardo Munoz (22nd), and I know there is going to be a lot of changeover, Vi [Daley, 43rd] is gone, Preckwinkle is gone.

But if there is changeover as well, and there are a lot of new people coming in, I would like to incorporate them in, and there are a lot of people running that see the parking meter deal as the epitome of this administration in a negative way. What I’d like to do is have this agenda for the future of the city, the new vision and say, “I can do this as alderman, too.”