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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.

 

 

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Remember the ominous "Doomsday Clock" with its symbolic "countdown" to a global disaster like nuclear war, and more recently, climate change?

The clock concept dates back to University of Chicago researchers whose work during World War II led to development of the first atomic bomb.

After the war a distinguished group of international scientists continued the risk analysis by calculating looming dangers once a year, and dramatizing their calibration by moving the clock's ticking minute hand to a pre-determined time uncomfortably close to midnight, or "doomsday," and all that implies.

The setting varies year-to-year — it's five to twelve in 2014, which is worrisome, but fortunately, only a metaphor.

So why am I invoking the clock muse? Because it's also a useful way to consider another potential disaster much closer to home: Government meltdowns at all levels — city, county, suburban, rural and state — over the daunting challenge of funding retiree pensions and medical benefits, and providing basic programs and services, without imposing huge tax increases that drive businesses and individuals out of Illinois, or massive layoffs and draconian spending cuts that hurt people.

I'm not crying "wolf" here, or echoing Chicken Little's warning about the sky falling.

This scenario is based on real data and knowledgeable assessments, including the following:

  • The new state budget has an actual revenue shortage of about $2 billion.
  • The stack of unpaid bills is down considerably but still nearly $4 billion.
  • The Illinois Supreme Court's recent declaration that it's unconstitutional to reduce retiree health benefits may foreshadow a similar fate for the pension reforms Illinois lawmakers approved last year for current and former state workers.

That ruling prompted the fiscal watchdogs at Standard & Poor's to move the state's financial outlook into "negative" territory, which portends another credit downgrade.

  • Hundreds of local governments are facing their own pension crises, including the City of Chicago, its public schools, Cook and other counties, and municipalities around the state.
  • The possible relocation of Walgreen and AbbVie headquarters outside Illinois reflects a sour corporate mood — companies sick and tired of our inhospitable business climate and national reputation for waste, fraud, corruption, inefficiency and dysfunction.

Bottom line? More jobs and individuals are going out than coming in, governments continue to rely on borrowing schemes and fiscal gimmicks to pay the bills, and our state lawmakers haven't developed a comprehensive plan for reversing this dystopian condition.

Has anyone suggested a gathering of top business, civic, political, academic, and community leaders to assess the severity of the crisis, and propose long-term solutions? Not that I've heard.

Isn't it time to put all of the elements of the problem on the table — government obligations, including retiree benefits, union contracts and credit payments; discretionary spending on programs, projects and services; staffing levels; bureaucratic bloat, highlighted by Illinois' excessive number of governmental entities; and revenue streams, including taxes and fees — and then consider reasonable solutions?

A summit is long overdue.

Clearly, there are no easy answers, and no way to avoid discomfort, but hardship and sacrifice should be shared, and we have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us.

For the record, Illinois is just one of several states teetering precariously on the edge of the fiscal cliff, and Washington, D.C., has turned dysfunction into a way of life.

That's discouraging, but not necessarily fatal, or permanent, and there's actually a reason for optimism: Our historic ability, as a nation, to confront serious problems and forge solutions.

From slavery to Jim Crow to women's suffrage to minority and gay rights; from world wars to economic depressions to natural disasters; from sweatshops to workplace reforms to technical, industrial and communications revolutions — we've faced obstacles that seemed intractable, and overcome many of them.

But time is short — our local "doomsday clock" is ticking toward midnight — so our "can do" spirit has to start permeating the halls of government from Cary to Chicago to Champaign to Carbondale ASAP.

Our leaders have to lead, because the fate of our state depends on it.

And they have to lead us away from the cliff — not over it.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

One of our jobs at the Better Government Association is to look for warning signs that suggest trouble may be on the way.

And with that in mind, I point to a recent BGA investigation that sounds the alarm at a number of Chicago-area fire departments, but not because there's an actual blaze.

This alert is sparked by a growing and potentially troubling trend in emergency service that requires victims of car accidents to help fill municipal budget holes.

It's known as a "crash tax," and it's quietly showing up in more and more communities as fire departments struggle to make ends meet.

The BGA found at least fifteen Cook County suburbs that are now billing non-residents after providing emergency responses to their accidents.


READ MORE: Cash Grab

More victims of car accidents may have to foot the bill for first responders as so-called "crash tax" gains popularity with local fire departments.


That means if you get into a car crash, you might be charged for the fire crew that comes to help, even if the accident is minor or not your fault.

Some departments charge an hourly rate — anywhere from $250 to $400 for each engine that responds, and $35 to $75 per firefighter — while others charge flat fees ranging from $435 to $2,200, depending on the situation.

It could be a major accident with people seriously injured or trapped inside a car, or routine work like directing traffic, cleaning up debris or simply waiting for a tow truck to arrive.

These services have typically been free to the recipients and covered by local property taxes in the responding municipality.

But towns and villages are scouring the landscape for resources these days, and that means sending out bills for first responders.

The concept is to recoup some of the costs of running a fire department by collecting money from the auto insurance companies that provide coverage to accident victims.

But what if the driver doesn't have insurance, or the claim is denied? In some cases, unpaid bills end up with a collection agency, which is what happened to Daryl Jenkins Jr. of west suburban Berkeley.

He was hit with a bill last year after a small fire broke out under the hood of his SUV, and his brother, who was driving the vehicle at the time, called 911 for help.

The Broadview Fire Department arrived and doused the flame within 11 minutes, according to the incident report.

But Jenkins was charged for one engine on the scene, at a rate of $250 per hour, and four responders, at $35 each, for a total of $390.

He was shocked to see the tab, and he probably has a lot of company — drivers who get caught up in similar situations.

The Broadview Fire Department contends that non-residents don't pay the village's property taxes, so drivers from out of town can't expect free emergency service.

Other agencies make the same argument, even though the fees bring in just a fraction of what it costs to run a department.

It's true that fire stations are expensive operations, and we're not trying to tell first responders how to do their jobs.

But this practice raises several concerns:

  • It borders on predatory to target those who've suffered the pain or trauma of an accident, and those who can't afford to pay the fees, by unleashing collection agencies on them.
  • It can easily be abused if fire departments send out more trucks, equipment and manpower than necessary to pad the bills.
  • It's arbitrary — that is, dependent on the decisions of insurance companies to reimburse or deny the claims.

We certainly understand the need for new and creative revenue streams to keep property taxes from skyrocketing out of control.

But if more fire departments are going to be charging for emergency services, let's build in safeguards that protect the victims of car accidents from being jolted a second time by an unexpected bill.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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The Emanuel administration apparently made enough progress in wringing illegal politics out of hiring, firing and promotions at City Hall to finally shed the yoke of a court-appointed monitor who's been policing personnel decisions for the past decade.

Ending the federally mandated oversight, which cost Chicago taxpayers more than $20 million in legal fees and compensation for victims of the rigged employment system, is a significant reform.

And it also includes the administration's adherence to a "do-not-hire" list of former public employees declared ineligible for city jobs because they were fired or forced to resign from other branches of government for alleged misconduct or corruption.

But leave it to a few Chicago aldermen to rain on the mayor's reform parade by initially balking at the monitor's request that they follow the same "do-not-hire" list when they're filling City Council jobs.

Some aldermen called the criticism unfair, claiming they were never asked to comply.

Others said they were open to going along with the constraint, but wanted to know more about how it worked first.

And a few were miffed by the suggestion they were missing a golden opportunity to embrace a valuable reform as they ramp up their re-election campaigns.

Grumbling aside, this dust-up was just another reminder that too many aldermen still aren't taking their ethics medicine.

And it invites another conversation about whether it's time to shrink the size of the 50-member council, which — on a per capita basis — is the largest and most expensive big-city legislative body in the country.

Collectively, Chicago's aldermen continue to put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

And, like most serial offenders, their track record is extensive:

  • Since 1973, more than 30 council members have been convicted of corruption and sent to prison.
  • Over the same period they've been little more than a rubber stamp for a succession of mayors.
  • And even when a handful of progressives argue successfully for reform, the results are usually watered down by an "old guard" that still controls the council.

For instance, an enlightened proposal aimed at preventing privatization fiascoes like the abominable parking meter deal has been languishing in a council committee for almost two years.

And when, under intense public pressure, aldermen grudgingly accepted the need for a legislative inspector general, they refused to provide the office with enough resources or authority to be an effective watchdog.

Recently, some council members have been angling to staff their offices and committees with more political hires, which is consistent with their tone deaf history of padding payrolls with friends, relatives and cronies.

A few council members have even been grumbling about losing a budget "slush fund" they've used over the years to underwrite the payroll padding.

But maybe the mayor's personnel reforms, and pressure from watchdog groups, is starting to have an impact, because — miracle of miracles — there's actually been an epiphany of sorts when it comes to the contentious do-not-hire list:

At least 43 aldermen recently sponsored a non-binding resolution committing them to abide by the list, and the mayor's legislative floor leader, Ald. Patrick O'Connor, wants to make it binding.

If the council goes along with O'Connor's proposal, that would be a step in the right direction.

But just a single step down a long road toward the kind of ethics reform the council needs and taxpayers deserve.

The kind of reform they've sidestepped numerous times over the past few decades.

The kind of reform that could tamp down the periodic clamor for a smaller, less expensive, more accountable City Council than the unwieldy, unethical legislative body we've been saddled with for decades.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel set the right tone by reforming personnel policies effectively enough to satisfy a federal judge and most good government advocates.

So if "better government" really is in the air at City Hall, let's hope a stiff Chicago lake breeze blows it into the City Council chamber and the aldermanic offices.

Then we'll close the windows so it fills every nook and cranny, and every alderman's been forced to inhale a lungful.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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