I’ve been reading an important new book that should be required reading for every Chicago voter. “The New Chicago Way” describes the problems awaiting the next mayor and City Council, and suggests steps to take now and in the near future to resolve the City’s chronic problems–like the ongoing pension crisis and our culture of political corruption.The authors are Edwin Bachrach and Austin Berg.
The book tackles issues such as how the structure of city government impacts and limits its problem-solving ability and how we can begin to resolve the pension crisis that threatens to bankrupt Chicago.
Did you know that nearly a quarter of the city budget is used to pay interest on the city’s borrowing debt? Did you know that some of our largest pension funds are less than 50% funded? Can you believe that the frightening funding shortages reported are not actual dollar figures but only estimates based on actuarial assumptions? Are you aware that other cities–some bigger than Chicago–have more efficient city governance structures that cost less and accomplish more?
Among the reforms Bachrach and Berg suggest is a smaller City Council that would focus on City business operations rather than on providing relatively minor services to constituents. They note that most of what aldermen do is administrative in nature, and that aldermanic privilege–the absolute control of zoning and licensing at the ward level–is a source of corruption. Other cities elect at-large council members who focus on city contracts and operations, leaving administrative and clerical work to managers and clerks.
The book outlines the history of the pension crisis and suggests ways to resolve it, none of them painless. However, the authors note that until we address the problems presented by high interest payments and overdue pension contributions, there will be less money available for City operations; we are reaching the point where these obligations will wipe out the funds collected by ever-increasing taxes and fees, leaving Chicago with no choice but bankruptcy.
I am just beginning the chapter on pensions. So far, I have only a couple of minor quibbles with the authors. The chapter on the City Council makes clear the system’s built-in inefficiencies and its potential for corruption. It also makes the case that treating each ward like a fiefdom contributes to the strong mayor-weak council system that allows the mayor to politicize decision-making and the City Council to ignore its responsibility for overseeing City business.
The New Chicago Way will be discussed at a forum on Wednesday, January 30, sponsored by Truth in Accounting, a Chicago non-profit founded on the belief that the public has a right to honest and accurate financial statements from government.The event will take place at the Union League Club, 65 West Jackson, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Cost is $35. (See registration information at the end of this post.)
The book is available from Amazon in both hardcover and e-book editions. It is not available from the Chicago Public Library, but I have submitted a purchase request. This book belongs in the library’s collection.
The coming election may be Chicago’s last chance at meaningful reform. It is time to elect a mayor and aldermen who understand their responsibilities and act accordingly.
Our Ward, in particular, needs an alderman with more important accomplishments than 4,000 sawed-off tree limbs.
FYI: The Union League Club does not permit guests to wear denim or athletic wear To register for this event: