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The Mechanics
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City Council Thu Apr 09 2009

Government for What?

Ben Jovarsky and Mick Dumke's dogged reporting has produced a fascinating, if predictable tale of Mayor Daley ramrodding questionable billion dollar privitization schemes through the City Council. It's no surprise that the Mayor and the pliant council are loath to engage in any sort of real public debate, but other news stories this week make the details Jovarsky and Dumke unearth much more troubling. Over and over again, the Mayor and his staff justify the quick and unexamined sell off of the city's assets for more funds for things like social services or neighborhood parks. But other stories this week seem to indicate that the Mayor has no intention of creating robust, quality city services. In other words, the Mayor and his staff are selling off revenue-generating city assets for no clear purpose.

The ChiTown Daily News first reported on the closing of four city mental health clinics, all on the South Side of Chicago. Budget director Paul Volpe, health commissioner Terry Mason, and Mayor Daley all cited state budget cuts as the reasons for the closing of the centers.

The full story is that the city never bothered to put in a computer billing system that allowed clinic staff to adequately track the number of patients served by the various clinics. Illinois was one of the few states that gave block grants for public mental health services. In the last few years, the state has been transitioning to a fee for service system that required the clinics to front money for services and then bill the state Medicaid system for reimbursement. There are obviously a number of problems with this approach (just ask the University of Chicago Medical Center why they're trying to avoid Medicaid patients), but in principal, all the clinics needed to do was develop a computer system that tracked patients and then receive reimbursements. The funny thing is, the system the Department of Public Health developed to track patient appointments was so cumbersome and bug-filled that center workers and advocates estimate about 30% of patient visits were actually recorded, leading to the significant drops in funding that precipitated the threats of clinic closure.

While there is a happy ending to this story (potentially) , via federal stimulus funds, the various discussions advocates associated with Southside Together Organizing for Power and other organizations had with Terry Mason and Paul Volpe call into question how serious the Department of Public Health is about providing public mental health services for Chicago residents. Beyond the statements of city staff and the privitization twinkles in their eyes, the willful ignorance of high level staff to the consequences of a terrible political system smakes of Bushian "starving the beast:" filling government with incompentent cronies who can't run their agencies. Public outcry over incompetence or waste is quickly spun as more evidence for privitization.

So the Department of Public Health can't fix its computers and the Department of Streets and Sanitation (and my car's alignment) are waiting for its savior in the form of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Is the intention of selling off city assets to provide basic city services for those who can't get private insurance to cover their mental health needs or don't have backyards large enough to play in? Is it to fund city departments that employ large numbers of low-skilled Chicagoans at living wage jobs? Or is it a form of "pin-stripe patronism" in which government assets are sold off to the highest (or most connected) bidder in return for... again, what exactly? The police are in revolt over being replaced by cameras and lower level staff is being cut across the board. What is clear is that Daley is not using budget cuts or cash from privitization to improve or maintain basic city services at the street-level where most Chicagoans live.

Instead of using government to provide basic city services for all citizens, Mayor Daley, whether through privitization, Chicago 2016 or the newly revealed Central City plan, seems to be using it to create a government of convention planners, decorators and service providers for well-heeled and capital flush.

Somehow we're all suppossed to imagine a world in which private, efficent companies run all our city services, even those for the most marginalized, where we glide along perfectly paved roads eating our variety buckets, flush with prestige from the Olympics boondoggle. Funny how they used to call Daley a pragmatic, non-ideological manager.

 
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