Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What is saved with city “holidays”

Roughly $2.7 million.

That is the figure Chicago city government officials will tell you they managed to save by slashing city services to the bare minimum on Monday.

AND MONDAY WAS going to be the first of three such “holidays” in which city workers are told to take the day off, because they’re not going to get paid. (The other two days are the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve).

One can argue that so many people look for excuses to not show up for work on those two days that it makes sense to just let everybody stay home.

Monday, however, appeared to be picked arbitrarily. Of course, any attempt to have unpaid holidays is going to be arbitrary in nature.

But this appears to be the gimmick used by municipal government, which wants to blame their payroll for being the cause of having such high budgets. They don’t want the negative political backlash of any kind of tax hike or other revenue boost, and they don’t want to come out and have to fight with the labor unions to cut salaries.

ALTHOUGH WHEN ONE thinks about it seriously, what else is a furlough except for a cut in salary. The worker is going to get paid this week for only four days of work. It will be a smaller paycheck.

And considering that many people in today’s tough economic times are desperate for every penny of that paycheck (assuming, of course, they have a job of some sort), this is going to strap them.

It might be easier if the salary were slashed, because that would shift the burden from some select weeks to just a slightly smaller salary every week. Of course, then, we’d have city employees in revolt, and that could easily cause pain at the voter booth in future years.

Why vote to re-elect a boss that can hurt their income?

NOW I REALIZE a lot of people aren’t that sympathetic to those who choose to earn a living by working on a public payroll. I’m not talking about the elected officials themselves, or even the top aides who answer directly to the top officials.

I’m referring to the working stiffs who do much of the scut work that enables governments at all levels to provide the services that the public has come to expect of them.

That clerk in the Recorder of Deeds office, or the person at the motor vehicles bureau of the Secretary of State’s office. I know those are Cook County and Illinois state government offices, but there are the equivalents in Chicago government. They exist in every government – and we’re talking people who do drudge work that helps keep straight what government provides to us.

I have always had problems whenever government officials at any level talk about the concept of “furloughs,” as though it is somehow the obligation of the lowest level people of a government to guarantee its continued existence – when usually it is the people at the highest levels who made poor decisions that caused a problem.

THE RESULT IS that they expect the low-level people to take a hit that helps fix the mess that ensures it won’t become a campaign issue in future years’ elections.

In short, a whole lot of people lost a day’s pay this week so that Mayor Richard M. Daley could ultimately come out on top yet again.

He’s gambling that you won’t remember the fact that your garbage wasn’t picked up, or that the neighborhood public library wasn’t open.

Admittedly, the police and fire departments were running with full shifts. But that’s because closing them down for a day is inviting disaster.

NOW IT’S POSSIBLE that some of you weren’t supposed to have your trash picked up on Monday, and the streets in front of your home aren’t as pothole infested as others across the city. It may even turn out that no one in your neighborhood needed the police or fire departments, or any other specific city services.

These are going to be the people who will make the ridiculous jokes about how a day without city government didn’t cause them any difference at all in their lives.

They may even quip about how things were better for a day without some city bureaucrat in place to make someone’s life more confusing. And if it meant that $2.7 million was saved (city officials estimate the three “holidays” will save $8.4 million), all the better.

It’s just that as far as I’m concerned, $2.7 million saved by all of city government just doesn’t sound like all that much money – particularly if it means that others were inconvenienced, either because they lost a day’s pay or because they had to wait a day to get something done by the city.

WHETHER THEY’RE CALLED “furloughs” or “unpaid holidays” or whatever phrase one prefers, ultimately, they are just a stopgap measure. More serious, long-lasting alternatives to balancing the city budget will have to be found.

Otherwise we run the risk of one day having a government that is so far over budget that its workers will have to take every day off in order to balance it.


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