The Biggest Chicago News Stories of 2013

The homicide rate, the privatization of city services, and the coming political and legal fight over pension reform: a roundup of the stories that will be big in the coming year.

 

2012 is almost in the books, and already being commemorated in roundups; I like GridChicago’s transit roundup; Fran Spielman’s roundup of Rahm Emanuel’s year; Heather Billings and Ryan Pitts of the Tribune’s outstanding Web Apps team, on the year in news products and projects; Miles Raymer’s 2012 Spotify playlist (Bobby Womack’s “Please Forgive My Heart” is a revelation); the Reader’s Photo Issue (always my favorite issue to work on when I worked there). But here are the big stories to watch in the new year.

1. Homicides

Today Chicago reached its 500th homicide (or not), the first time it’s been above that total in four years; shootings are up too. The early reports of the 500th victim, Nathaniel Jackson, are familiar:

He had been shot several years ago, after an earlier stint in jail, and Bates said she constantly warned him to be careful on the street.

“The last time he was out, someone had shot him several times, in the back,”  Bates said as she stood outside Stroger Hospital, where Jackson was pronounced dead. “He was a fighter, he was a survivor.”

Police had no motive on the shooting outside Noah Foods at Augusta Boulevard and Lavergne Avenue. No one was in custody.

Based on recent statistics, there’s about a 50/50 chance that the case will get cleared, about half the national clearance rate. Jackson, as an offender who’d been shot before, reminded me of the research of Andrew Papachristos, and his research into crime as a social network, research the CPD is integrating into its crimefighting strategies.

In August, Noah Isackson wrote an in-depth article on Garry McCarthy and the jump in homicides and shootings in 2012. McCarthy isn’t the first CPD chief to run into a wall of increased homicides early in his tenure; homicides increased under Jody Weis, then dropped again, but the political currents behind Rahm Emanuel’s victory led to Weis’s resignation.

Take caution with interpretations of 2012’s increase in homicides; it’s hard to extrapolate from one year. There’s substantial evidence that warm, dry weather will lead to more homicides, and Chicago was unusually warm and dry when it’s usually not. But if the homicide rate doesn’t drop next year, especially when things warm up, expect McCarthy’s crimefighting strategies to get more scrutiny (just as Weis’s did):

One thing that McCarthy can’t do, however, is rely on units that specialize in fighting gangs—the teams that ­Hillard began disbanding as interim superintendent. McCarthy hasn’t moved to reinstate them, arguing that the officers’ expertise is better used in the districts. That’s one reason his gang strategy has failed to rouse support among the rank and file, whose job it is to proactively police the beats in the way their boss demands.

[snip]

Homicides remained under the 500 mark until 2008. The previous fall, in the wake of ongoing scandal involving the rogue officers, Dana Starks, the interim superintendent between Cline and Weis, shelved the specialized units. Homicides began to rise. After Weis took the job, he convinced Mayor Daley in September 2008 to reinstate the units, promising that, as chief, he’d implement better training and more accountability.

According to Weis, the city’s sub-500 murder totals in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were a direct result of that decision. “Sometimes the answer is staring you right in the face,” he says.

McCarthy is trying new things; if the numbers don’t drop, there’ll likely be pressure to re-implement old ideas.

2. Privatization

One thing that we know will happen in 2013: “Loop rates will go up 75 cents to $6.50 an hour as part of scheduled fee increases included in Mayor Richard Daley’s much-criticized 2008 lease of the city’s meters to Chicago Parking Meters LLC.” But if you think that’s expensive:

The city’s unpaid tab for lost parking meter revenue has topped $61 million as Mayor Rahm Emanuel continues to dispute bills sent by the company that controls the city’s metered spaces under a much-maligned long-term lease.

Chicago Parking Meters LLC has sent the city two types of bills: one for spaces out of service for festivals, street repairs and other reasons and another for lost revenue due to free parking for vehicles displaying disabled placards or plates.

Having spent most of the money that the parking-meter lease brought in, it’s possible that what remains of the revenue stream could be exceeded by how much the city owes Chicago Parking Meters LLC for “lost parking meter revenue.”

It’s not just us; Indiana’s toll road lease has been in the news this year, mostly because no one can figure out who’s getting screwed by it. Maybe it’s the state’s future taxpayers; maybe it’s the investors:

While the toll road operator has more than two years until it hits the maturity wall, it runs the risk in the interim of bleeding dry its interest reserve account. Amid an ongoing battle with negative operating conditions such as declining traffic, the pressure on ITR’s earnings has accelerated the drain on the reserve account. The account totaled just around USD 40m back in March, down from the USD 150m allotted when the project was conceived in 2006, as previously reported by Debtwire.

Rather than cease the move to privatization, the Emanuel administration is moving forward with a lease of Midway Airport:

With that historical backdrop, Emanuel is suggesting a more conservative approach. It includes a shorter-term lease of less than 40 years; a “travelers’ bill of rights” aimed at ensuring any changes will benefit passengers; and a continuing stream of revenue for the city, giving it a shot to capture some growth.

Emanuel’s promised approach is an attempt to learn from the newer good-government lessons of privatization, many of which have developed from his predecessor’s mistakes. Then again, Daley was following best practices when he privatized services big and small, as Mick Dumke writes:

In his first budget in 1989, Mayor Daley privatized management of a south-side mental health clinic. Next he hired private firms to take over abandoned vehicle towing, parking ticket collections, tree stump removal, parking at O’Hare, and some janitorial services.

While claiming savings for taxpayers, Daley also benefited politically from the highly publicized moves. In the mid-90s the Washington Post and Toronto Globe and Mail wrote glowing stories about how the scion of the nation’s biggest patronage operation was so devoted to efficiency that he was privatizing city jobs.

Whether the mayor can convince Chicagoans that he can improve on the disastrous parking-meter deal is one of the more interesting questions of next year. Or maybe the more interesting question: will anyone notice?

3. Pension Reform

It’s on Emanuel’s legislative wish-list; it’s on the legislative docket; it’s almost certainly going to happen, in one form or another. 2012 brought a number of proposals, from Pat Quinn to Tom Cross to Michael Madigan to Mike Fortner (here’s a good rundown—PDF—of some of them), none of which made much progress, but at least established a menu of options for legislators. Now Elaine Nekritz and Daniel Biss have a new proposal that synthesizes them.

There just aren’t that many things you can do to reduce the pension debt, so it’s a matter of piecing together a bill from the options, whether it’s the one proposed by Nekritz and Biss, or something similar (the suburban/downstate teachers’ pension shift will be the biggest political hurdle). So it’s hard to imagine the legislature not passing something, since the concievable options are on the table. Where it’ll get interesting is in the courts; Illinois has one of the most strict constitutional protections of pension benefits in the country (only New York is comparable), so it’s going to require good lawyering and fair judicial tailwinds for any pension-reducing legislation to pass muster. I’ve got a column coming up shortly about how pension reductions could be constitutional; here’s a bit of a preview.

The other option, of course, is new revenues. A progressive income tax (Illinois is unusual in having a flat income tax) often gets kicked around, but like pension benefits, the flat tax is also enshrined in the constitution, and would require an amendment—a high bar for something that doesn’t seem to have traction right now in Springfield.

 

Photograph: vonderauvisuals (CC by 2.0)

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