Representative Harris Speaks at Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce “State of Neighborhood” Meeting

“Boy, did I leave Springfield at the right time,” joked Cook County Commissioner, and former state legislator, John Fritchey.

Speaking at the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce annual “State of the Neighborhood” meeting, held Oct. 18 at Pizza D.O.C., Fritchey followed rather downbeat reports from State Representative Greg Harris, 13th District, and State Senator Heather Steans, 7th District. Though only in Illinois could the county’s $350 million budget shortfall come across as favorable by comparison.

First up at the microphone, Steans began her overview with a laundry list of highlights from the most recent legislative session, including the passage of bills that legalized civil unions and abolished the death penalty, but it was impossible to ignore the 900-pound gorilla in the room: Illinois’ crushing deficit.

“We have spent more money on a regular basis than we’ve taken in and that’s not sustainable,” summed up Harris. For decades, the state income tax remained static, even as spending continued to increase, he explained. The state borrowed money to partially fill the gap and treated funds earmarked for pensions like an ATM. “And nobody called us on it,” Harris noted. One particularly surprising bit of fuzzy accounting disclosed by Steans: Illinois pays its current-year Medicaid liability out of the next year’s revenues (good luck figuring out that math). “That’s just wrong,” she said.

Though the state has stopped borrowing and Governor Quinn has signaled a commitment to results-based budgeting (monies are allocated based on demonstrated need and success), Illinois now boasts the worst-funded pension system in the country, according to Steans, and will spend billions in 2012 catching up with past due bills and servicing debt, eating away at available resources for education and social services. To ease some of this burden, changes were made to the pension system for new employees and, in the interest of solvency, Steans said further pension reforms are likely for current employees. “It’s been the government that’s taken the holiday and we’ve got to make it right,” Harris said, “but it’s going to mean a couple of lean years.”

The ultimate goal is to “cut enough fat to build needed muscle,” said Steans, and get to the point where “we can pay for the past and invest in the future.” That point is not 2012.

Fritchey’s joshing aside, the picture in Cook County doesn’t look much better. “The upcoming budget is going to be an austere one,” he warned, with employee layoffs and furloughs and service cuts projected. “These are difficult times.”

Taking a glass-half-full approach, Fritchey stated that opportunity exists to re-evaluate current practices and determine “where we can run leaner.” He identified a number of common sense solutions that could result in millions of dollars of savings, including merging the Recorder of Deeds and County Clerk offices and negotiating a single contract among laborers who clean City Hall (the city occupies half the building and the county the other half; each has a separate agreement with workers to tidy up their domain). Meanwhile, out-of-state and out-0f-county residents are taking advantage of free health care at Stroger Hospital, and no one’s ever bothered to ask them to pay their tab. “We need to collect,” Fritchey said.

With Illinois’ fiscal woes almost too massive to comprehend, and Cook County an ambiguous governmental entity to most North Side residents (in Fritchey’s terms, we’re “light users” of the county’s health and public safety systems), it was up to Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th Ward) to provide context at the neighborhood and household level.

Chicago is short some $635 million out of a $3 billion budget. “Almost 80 percent of that is personnel, and 65 to 70 percent of that [80 percent] is public safety,” Pawar said of the city’s total expenses. “You can’t cut $600 million out of that bottom 20 percent. There are no sacred cows. You’re talking about the survival of the city.”

Illustrating Pawar’s point: Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to merge the 19th and 23rd Police Districts. While acknowledging this as a sensitive subject among his constituents, Pawar called the mayor’s plan “an exercise to prevent draconian cuts,” noting that in Camden, N.J., half of the officers on the police force were laid off in a single afternoon. “We’re heading down that path,” he said. “The honest conversation has to happen. We have to make decisions and some of them are really tough.”

That said, Pawar vowed to fight any reallocation of officers away from the 47th Ward into other neighborhoods. Beats are going to be realigned, and the closing of facilities should actually have the net result of more officers on the streets, he stated. In his dealings with Superintendent Gary McCarthy, Pawar said he’s been given the impression that the department intends to use data to assign officers more effectively within each ward, as opposed to shifting personnel.

After this rather bleak presentation, business owners and residents attending the chamber meeting expressed one overriding concern: If we tighten our belts, pay off our debts and pull ourselves out of this hole (or holes, as it appears to be), how do we know that a few years down the road, we won’t end up in the exact same mess?

Be active citizens, came the response. “You need to remain vigilant,” said Fritchey, a sentiment echoed by Harris.

It took years for Illinois and Chicago to reach their current states of financial disarray. “Everyone, both parties, let this go on, including voters,” said Harris. “You’ve got to hold us accountable.”