New Normal in City Services Is Doing Less With Less

By Jason Kreke | Monday, August 6, 2012

The Ward Council is evolving into committees that will cover gaps in city services. Credit: Mike Fourcher

There is a new normal in city services: doing less with less.

At last week’s meeting of the 47th Ward Council, held at Bethany Retirement Community (4950 N. Ashland Ave.), Ald. Ameya Pawar outlined the financial challenges facing the city and the effect that will have on services in the ward. In response, the Council is evolving into ward committees that will address structural, environmental or quality of life issues, make recommendations and take action.

With the meeting framed by the city budget, the alderman emphasized that residents will have to adjust to longer waits for and reduction of some city services.

The city recently announced a 2013 budget deficit of roughly $370 million, nearly half of a previous projection. The decrease was accomplished largely through cuts, said Pawar, and the deficit can grow to $700 million (or more) by 2015 if certain areas, namely pensions, are not addressed.

“The deficit is structural,” he said. “We need to make fundamental cuts. A lot of our offices are cut to the bone except for police and fire. It used to be doing more with less. Now it is doing less with less.”

A changing economy coupled with overall declining revenue is partly to blame. With a warmer winter that saw fewer utility taxes collected, the reduction in taxes on landline phones as people shift to mobile devices and the lagging housing market, which reduces real estate transaction taxes, the city is scrambling to find new revenue streams.

“It’s not as simple as cutting the fat,” Pawar said. “Downstate [Springfield] needs to address the pension issue. We need to address police and fire. It just can’t be the expense side where we make the cuts.”

One way to mitigate the effect of the citywide cuts is to organize residents into six ward committees composed of block clubs, neighborhood groups and chambers of commerce to work alongside the alderman. The six committees—zoning, transportation, senior council, green council, gardening network, and quality of life—will serve as liaisons between the local groups and the alderman’s office.

According to Jim Poole, community specialist and legislative liaison for the alderman’s office, the goal of the committee structure is to bring different neighborhood groups together to share ideas across the ward. “We are creating two streams for input: from the alderman and from the neighborhood groups,” Poole said.

Issues the groups are currently addressing:

  • The transportation committee worked to consolidate permit parking in the ward, giving residents more flexibility to park near their homes. Members are now assessing bike transportation in the area.
  • Julie Peterson of the 47th Ward Green Council discussed recommendations for a greener ward. These include streamlining the permit process for installing solar panels on residences and approaching owners of buildings with large tar rooftops about installing green roofs.
  • Dara Salk, a liaison with the alderman’s office and representative of the Senior Council, emphasized the importance of getting to know neighbors, especially during a particularly brutal summer heat wave. A few people in the ward have succumbed to the heat, so it is important to check on neighbors who might need assistance.
  • The new quality of life committee will look at improving overall quality of life in the ward, Poole said. This includes holding CAPS meetings or developing best practices for city services.

Anticipating tight city budgets for the foreseeable future, these committees are one way for ward residents to address problems without involving city services. For example, the alderman said an entire block needs to use rain barrels to effectively combat street flooding, which overwhelms the city’s sewer system. “By organizing community groups to do this, the city will save money in water management, sewer and street services.”

Even with the prospect of service cuts and a potentially looming budget meltdown, only 25 people turned out for the Ward Council. “When things are good, people don’t come out,” the alderman said. “It’s only when it’s bad that people come out.”

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