TOPICS > Economy

Budget Gap Shuts Down City Services in Chicago

August 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A $469-million budget gap forced a shutdown of non-essential city services, such as garbage collection, in Chicago on Monday. Ray Suarez talks to Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW about the move.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, a two-part report on how the budget crunch is impacting cities and states.

First, Ray Suarez on the shutdown today of some city services in Chicago.

RAY SUAREZ: You might have thought today was a holiday in Chicago. City Hall never opened for business, libraries and senior centers remained dark, and no garbage was picked up, all part of the Windy City’s effort to fill a 2009 budget shortfall of $300 million.

NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW has been covering the story today and joins us now from the “Chicago Tonight” studios.

Elizabeth, was it apparent that something was up, that thousands of people weren’t at work?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, it was a different kind of day in Chicago, particularly with City Hall closed. I mean, people noticed that, for sure, and also people who wanted to go to the library. One young man said, “You know, I don’t have a computer at home, and I needed to do my homework at the library. That’s the only computer I have access to.”

So it was noticed, and people did notice that their garbage didn’t get picked up today, either.

RAY SUAREZ: As I mentioned, the gap is several hundred million dollars. Do furloughs like the one put in place today put a big down payment on closing that budget gap?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, it’s a help. Initially, the budget gap out of an almost $6 billion budget was about $570 million. They now have it down to $300 million, which is still a lot of millions, as budgets go, so it has helped.

And it was 15 furlough days, as you said. There were six furlough days and six unpaid holidays, holidays where city employees would have gotten paid, like the Fourth of July — they won’t get paid — and then these three shutdown days where the city shuts down all except for essential services.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there other big cuts threatened for down the road?

More layoffs to come

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, there have already been 400 city employees laid off. And that actually was initially thought it was to be 1,500 employees. And the mayor and his staff negotiated with the unions, and most of the unions agreed to take these furlough days, like the one you're seeing today.

But AFSCME, the city municipal employees union, and the Teamsters union said, no, we're not going to take these furlough days, and therefore 400 of their union members were laid off.

RAY SUAREZ: How is the public taking this? Do they understand what's going on? And is it part of what people are talking about?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It is part of what people are talking about. You know, who isn't talking about what's happening to the economy? And, I mean, people are concerned about what's happening.

I don't think the public is really feeling the impact of the city shutdown today, you know, massively. Probably feeling it much more are the city employees who aren't getting paid.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any political repercussions for long-time Mayor Richard Daley?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, Mayor Daley has always been a pretty Teflon mayor. Not much has seemed to faze him. People are upset about this, but since he hasn't raised taxes, which people are even probably more concerned about, he's still getting pretty much of a pass on this.

And the other thing is, there are no challengers in sight, as his popularity does take some hits, but there's no one coming up saying, "You know, I want to be the next mayor," that at this point has a particularly credible following.

RAY SUAREZ: I ask in part because this is a city and this is a mayor that are particularly proud of how well the city works even when things aren't going well, that it's a high-services city, and that there are libraries in every neighborhood in the city, and on and on. This would seem to, well, be Chicago taking a knock during a tough time economically.

Chicago not immune to tough times

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, it is taking a knock; there's no doubt about that. And Chicago is a city that works, is one of the mayor's favorite expressions.

But, you know, certainly Chicago isn't immune to these tough economic times. And I think people are -- the citizenry generally is understanding of the kind of cuts and the kind of service cutbacks that the mayor has had to make.

Of course, the mayor's biggest full employment opportunity is the hope that Chicago gets the 2016 Olympics, as he is pushing for very, very hard, and we'll know that in October. That, according to the mayor, will be the kind of economic boon, the kind of job-creating programs that the city of Chicago needs. So we'll see.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, absent the 2016 Olympics, which would still be some way off, are they anticipating more budget trouble for next year?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Oh, absolutely. It looks worse next year, at this point. So it looks like we may be going through, you know, more rounds of these furlough days and more layoffs. I mean, it's not pleasant times in municipal finance, I think anywhere in the country, and it's certainly true here in Chicago.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, often when a big city has a holiday, one of the few joys of a holiday is that you don't have to feed the parking meters. Was that the case in Chicago today?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Oh, no. You still have to feed the parking meters in Chicago. You know, the city of Chicago privatized the parking meters, much to the dismay of many of the citizens of Chicago. The city got $1.3 billion for privatizing the parking meters, and the citizens of Chicago got to pay a whole lot more for parking.

And if there's been one political liability for Daley this year, it has been his handling of this parking meter privatization contract. People are livid.

For one thing, they raised the prices to park, they extended the hours -- some parking meters are now 24/7 -- and before doing this, they didn't make enough changes so that, for instance, you could put a credit card in a parking meter box. So citizens are having to carry around, you know, 27 quarters to park downtown for two hours. So it was -- it's not been a happy time around parking issues in Chicago.

RAY SUAREZ: Elizabeth Brackett in Chicago, thanks for joining us.