On Wednesday October 24th the Progressive Caucus held its second open community meeting to discuss the 2013 proposed City of Chicago budget. The meeting was held at Wells High School, which is located in Chicago’s 1st ward.
This second open community meeting was moderated by CLTV’s “Politics Tonight” anchor Paul Lisnek . Present were Alderman John Arena (45), Alderman Nick Sposato (36), Alderman Scott Waguespack (32), Alderman Walter Burnett (27), Alderman Rick Munoz (22), Alderman Toni Foulkes (15), and Alderman Bob Fioretti (2). Alderman Nick Sposato announced that the last open community meeting held in the 45th Ward at the Copernicus Center had about 200 people in attendance.
All attendees at Wells high School were encouraged to speak freely. Alderman Bob Fioretti reminded everyone that the annual budget is the most important aspect about public policy. “It tells who we are as a city. We will listen to what you have to say and try to make changes if we can,” he continued, “We want a budget that attracts businesses to the city, develops a good tax base, makes our streets safe, and betters our schools.”
Alderman Foulkes agreed and said although she was a long way from her ward “home” she was very glad to be at the community meeting. Said Foulkes, “We work for you, you elect us, you hold us accountable- remember that. Please stand up and let your voices be heard.”
Many people from the community voiced their thoughts and opinions on the proposed 2013 city budget. The resounding concerns were two-fold; public safety and a level playing-field when it comes to bids and contracts.
While these two themes rang true over and over with countless attendees who came up to the microphone to speak, one woman who stood out was Lorraine, a laid-off Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) information technology worker from Chicago’s 911 Center.
Lorraine began her sentence with a plea for help “Aldermen, my name is Lorraine. Please help me”, she continued, “I was there (at OEMC) for 16 yrs. Now contractors are doing my job. I have a BA and Master’s Degree. My technical skills were a viable asset to the city of Chicago. I am a well-educated professional information technology worker. I managed serious and complex situations, I routinely performed software development and upgrades.” Lorraine explained a lengthy and impressive set of skills that she used to help make the 911 center flawless and without error while she was there. She concluded her plea with “I am job ready. I was born and raised in this city. Please put my title back in the budget.”
This year the OEMC was hit as a part of the 2012 budget cuts that Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed. Today the 2013 proposed budget for OEMC is essentially the 2012 budget as far as manpower and positions. The problem lies, however, with the 2012 budget cuts which they are still dealing with on a day to day basis. The 2012 budget included 17 911 Operator layoffs as well as numerous demotions that have affected Chicago’s 911 service. Still, the Mayor’s office defended the job cuts, noting that paying over-time “is less expensive than having a full-time staff person” who is not needed year-round. And so the Mayor ended up eliminating 10 dispatcher vacancies, demoting three supervisors and one dispatcher and laying off one call-taker. Also, the jobs of 45 police dispatchers were eliminated, and so were four of 22 radio repair technicians.
According to a budgetary committee meeting held in City Council on October 18, 2012, OEMC Executive Director Gary Schenkel was asked what happened to the people who were laid-off from OEMC earlier this year. Alderman Nick Sposato asked Mr. Schenkel if those who were laid off would be part of the new rehires for 2013. Mr. Schenkel stated that all 911 Operator layoffs were in fact rehired already. (audio)
Upon further research I contacted Jeff Johnson, Union Steward for IBEW Local 9, to confirm the status of the layoffs and the circumstances of Lorraine. Mr. Johnson said that four people are still laid off and that three people are still in “demoted” positions since earlier this year. So, in fact, not all of those who were laid off have been rehired as Mr. Schenkel stated to the city council just last week. Lorraine was part of the OEMC IT department which, as of January 1st 2012, is handled by a solely privatized contract that maintains the computers and makes sure that the system is working.
Many of attendees of the open community meeting expressed their opinion that privatization is for political purposes only. “Privatized workers do not do a better job than city workers. It is an uneven playing field.” Recall that Lorraine said her work was flawless and her 16 years of time proved to be without incident. After privatization, however, the 911 system did in fact go down for four hours. According to the Chicago Tribune, this July 2012 the state-of-the-art computer aided dispatch system unexpectedly crashed. Said the article “city officials still hadn’t determined what caused the system crash.”
One gentleman in the crowd at the open community meeting stated, “Politicians must remember one very important thing, yeah they need money, they need contributions, but they need votes! (applause from crowd) There are still more voters in the city of Chicago than there are contractors, most of whom are coming from outside the city.”
With the doubling of overtime at the 911 Center, one would wonder if 911 dispatcher burnout has been looked at? The over-time budget line item is the only thing that has increased from the 2012 OEMC budget of $3.2 million to 2013 proposed $6 million budget for over-time. Says Jeff Johnson “With over-time budget doubling, wouldn’t it make more sense to just use a fraction of that money to hire more people?”
911 dispatcher over-time is a recurring story in the Sun-times and Tribune. One would question the effectiveness of having less personnel, causing more over-time personnel on the boards at the 911 Center. This year, for example, Chicago had an unseasonably mild St. Patrick’s Day. Bars and the city’s annual downtown parade drew huge crowds downtown and to the River North area. Sources said 911 dispatchers were so inundated that weekend between 10 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m. Sunday that only 18 percent of the calls received during that time were answered within two to three rings. That’s one of the lowest percentages in the 17 years since the $217 million 911 center opened on the West Side.
“Apparently with this 5th floor when it comes to the city budget the 1% is in and the 99% is out.”- Attendee at Oct 24, 2012 Community Meeting
Several people at the open community meeting expressed concerns over privatization and having a fair and transparent bidding process. One gentleman tagged his concern as being about “sweetheart contracts”. “We want clarity on who is getting the money, we’d like to see the money going back to the neighborhoods.” Many expressed that despite city halls inability to provide for these open forums to discuss the city budget, the votes of Chicago residents count. “At some point we will see that votes mean more than money,” said one attendee.
Recently the Chicago Tribune announced a deal which Mayor Emanuel plans to install dozens of digital billboards along local expressways in order to raise more than $150 million in advertising revenue. This would be a private partnership which would last for 20 years. The details are that Interstate Outdoor Advertising along with JCDecaux would do the installation.
According to records, Interstate Outdoor Advertising’s lobbying firm is Neal & Leary, a firm headed by Langdon Neal. Mr. Neal is also chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Langdon Neal has been a topic of such questionable “sweetheart” deals in the past. According to a press release from October 3, 2012 written by Jay Stone, Mr. Neal serves as Election Chairman despite several apparent conflicts of interest. Those conflicts are not mentioned in his Ethics Statement. They include government contracts and lobbying, which gives an estimated $30 to $40 million dollars that he has earned from no-bid government contracts and lobbying. Jay Stone made this discovery through the Freedom of Information requests on Mr. Neal’s Income Tax Return, his $101 Million in no-bid government contract payments, and his $11 million in government lobbying compensation. Might this be the exact sort of “sweetheart” deal that the crowd at Wells High School fears?
The third and final open community budget meeting will be held Tuesday, Oct 30th, at 6 pm at
South Shore International HS (1955 East 75th Street). The Progressive Caucus encourages the community to come out and let their voices be heard. This final meeting will be moderated by special guest WVON’s Cliff Kelley.
At the close of the Wells High School open community meeting one participants said to the crowd of over 200 “We thank the Aldermen for having the guts to have this forum, and I want to remind everyone here that three years from now we have to have the backs of these fine Aldermen.”