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City Hall: How Low They Can Go 

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An article on Chicago politics that appeared last summer on the front page of the Wall Street Journal contained one memorable passage. Chicago is no longer "the city that works," the authors wrote; it is now "Beirut on the Lake"? The Beirut metaphor has stuck and is now part of the local political lexicon; during periods of particularly fierce intracouncil fighting, Beirut has been jokingly referred to as "Chicago on the Sea."

To some minds, the Beirut moniker aptly encapsulates the city's politics. Others are appalled by the comparison, as no blood has been shed and no bullets fired in Chicago. They fear the nationalization of the phrase; for reputations die hard, and businesses are not exactly eager to set up shop in Lebanon these days.

I wondered whether the Beirut analogy was as metaphorically rigorous as it was journalistically clever. Until I spoke with Alderman Richard Mell.

Running as an insurgent, a voice from the community, Mell took on and beat the machine ten years ago in the 33rd Ward. Shortly thereafter, he became a machine loyalist himself. He is one of the Vrdolyak 29 and, for what it's worth, vice-mayor of the city. For what it's worth, he remembers himself as a youthful firebrand.

"In all honesty, on a spectrum of zero being the John Birch Society and 100 being the SDA Weathermen, you, just from my talking with you, are an 80-85," Mell told me. "When I graduated from school, I was a 97. I am now a 36-1/2, and going further to the right."

"You!" I said.

"I was an asshole as a kid," confided Mell, who's 46 now, and an alumnus of the University of Michigan. "Luckily I wasn't there in '68. I probably would have killed the dean. I was of that mentality … . At the christening of my daughter, Martin Luther King was killed and the whole city was burning. I said, 'You know, they have a right to do that. They killed their leader.' My Italian relatives wanted to kill me … . So you see how far I've come since then."

"And maybe Eddie Burke is a 20 or so … " I wondered.

"Minus 20," Mell said. "Minus 20."

Weathermen theory held that to smash the state, it was first necessary to discredit it. The idea was to provoke the state into acts of repression that would unite the people on the side of revolution.

I caught a glimpse of the old insurrectionist as Mell and I talked about the highly unromantic topic of Harold Washington's proposed $125 million bond issue for repairing Chicago's crumbling streets and sidewalks. Last July the council voted down the bond issue on strict 29-21 lines. Now the Washington administration has revived the idea, and it is likely that considerable attention will be paid it over the next month or so. But Mell thinks the bond issue still has little chance of passing.

Why not? It's a relatively modest proposal offering money to all 50 wards … 

"I agree with you," Mell said, "but … the sad situation is, in fact, it is naive to ask why isn't this being done, or why isn't that being done, just because they're good-government positions.

"There are some who believe that to get rid of Harold Washington is good government because we simply can't take four more years of him. Maybe someone can make the case that, in the long run, two years of not having this [bond] is worth ten years of political stability in this city. It's a legitimate position; arguably, not voting for this bond is in the best interest of this city."

Mell said all this very matter-of-factly, as if he were ticking off reason he had chosen to oppose a one cent increase in a cigarette tax. But what he was saying is that the best interests of Chicago can be served by undermining anything positive Harold Washington tries to do. If the 29 can't run the city, if they must share power, then it's better that nothing be accomplished.

"You have to realize," Mell said, "that within the 29 there are some extreme hawks who don't want to give Harold anything, who want to drop a neutron bomb on City Hall … . You've got guys like [Alderman Bernard] Stone and [Alderman John] Madrzyk—they don't want to give [Washington] a thing. I, to a certain degree, am a hawk."

Beirut on the lake—of course! Who's to blame for Chicago's civil war, the death of some good programs and the wounding of others? Ask Richard Mell and he'll tell you, he and his 28 cohorts, the radical Shiites of the city's northwest and southwest sectors, a crazed sect of Vrdolyakers shooting at any program with Washington's imprint on it and then rationalizing it as being in the best long-term interests of the city. Mell is merely doing what must be done. He is a man with a cause.

Mayor Washington first proposed issuing $93 million in bonds (since grown to $125 million) in February 1984. Politically, the 29 felt attacked where they are most vulnerable: for Washington intended to use these revenues to contradict their contention that he is a mayor uninterested in the welfare of the white community.

Consider Washington's proposal to replace 130 blocks of quasi-streets dating back to the Depression. The streets are really dirt roads paved over with asphalt; they have no drainage sewers and no curbs, and basement flooding is a major complaint where these roads exist. For years the WPA streets—so-called because they were built by the federal Works Progress Administration—have been an irritant to those who live on them. It's a problem largely limited to white wards represented by Vrdolyakers.

The Washington administration has proposed spending $16 million on WPA streets, enough money to clear about half the backlog of petitions from block clubs that want the city to rebuild their streets. Home owners must each chip in about $600 to $700 under a cost-sharing program enacted by the City Council in the mid-70s. That's about 20 percent of the construction costs.

The Washington program favors the 29's wards over the 21's: 58 percent of the city's wards are represented by the majority bloc; 63 percent of the $125 million in bond revenues would go to their wards. There's money for all 50 wards; subtract funds for all projects of supposedly city-wide interest, like $15 million to fix up Navy Pier, and about half the $100-million balance is divided evenly 50 ways. An example is the $39 million for street resurfacing: each alderman gets $780,000 (about four miles' worth of street resurfacing) to spend pretty much at his or her discretion. The rest—including funds for the WPA-streets project—is allocated according to need. Vrdolyak's Tenth Ward gets more than 39 other wards. Three of the four wards in line for the most money are represented by a Vrdolyaker.

None of Washington's proposed improvements for the majority wards is the kind that would prompt a monumental shift of voters over to his side, but the bond issue still could be the bane of the 29. To nail down the 1987 mayor's race, Washington probably needs only a small percentage shift to his side of white voters living on the northwest and southwest sides. As every machine politician knows, fixing up streets wins friends. Conversely, every blemish on the city's face works against an incumbent, and especially this incumbent. Citizens who suspect or would like to believe that Washington—as the Vrdolyakers contend—is providing inferior service to them because their alderman is on the wrong side of the council fight, an find fortification for that view abounding: a city full of potholes and other imperfections.

The Vrdolyakers promptly pounded on the bond proposal, led by their man on financial matters, Ed Burke. After years of rubber-stamping any property tax increase that needed his approval, Burke criticized Washington for trying to saddle the overburdened property owner with yet another levy. He was "trouble," he said, by the "tens of millions" in interest the bond would cost the people. Burke seems a hard man for the mayor to please. In his "Mid Term Report" evaluating Washington's first two years in office, Burke criticizes the mayor for offering no major public works projects. What about the public words bond stuck in Burke's own Finance Committee since February 1984? That doesn't count, Burke wrote, because Washington wants to pay for the bond by raising property taxes, "a move the City Council resisted in clear response to the taxpaying public and to the reality that property tax increases cannot be a yearly event."

The bond would indeed raise property taxes. But that's the way most public works projects are funded, and that's the way any general-purpose bond works: a city uses as collateral its most reliable source of income, the taxes it levies on property. Bankers will have it no other way. Bond issues are standard fare for any large city, so much so that Burke, shortly after Washington took over as mayor, made a big to-do when Wall Street lenders lowered the city's bond rating one notch, thereby raising the cost of borrowing money through bond deals. (Blaming Washington for this, as Burke did, is akin to crediting Washington because the White Sox, Cubs, and Bears have all made the play-offs during his tenure). $125 million is not a small bond; nor is it enormous as municipal bonds go, according to one Wall Street bond expert I spoke with. Most big cities borrow money via bonds every year or two, he said, as did Chicago before Washington. During Jane Byrne's tenure, the city issued three big-money general-purpose bonds, totaling $213 million (all approved with nary a whimper by those today calling themselves the 29). Byrne's last bond—which as Chicago's last—was approved by the council in 1982.

The bond would cost "tens of millions" in interest, as Burke said. As with any mortgage, the city would be paying hefty interest charges on top of the principal owned. By the year 2010, when the bond would be fully paid off, the interest would exceed the amount of the principal itself, making the total cost to the city $270 million or more (a total that in 2010 will seem considerably more modest, thanks to inflation). Spread among businesses, landlords and their tenants, and home owners, however, that price is not as prohibitive as it might at first seem. The bond's cost to the owner of a $60,000 home would never exceed an additional $16 in any given year; most years the home owner would likely be paying much less. (The mayor's financial people estimate the maximum yearly levy on a $60,000 home at $12.60, this derived by averaging optimistic and pessimistic projections of future interest rates; $15.23 is their worst-case figure.) The way the administration has set up the payment plan, the home owner would barely notice the cost of the new bond. The city would pay back the bond in increasingly greater increments—the cost to the individual would be nothing the first year and would increase gradually each year. This was arranged because a number of bonds dating back to Mayor Daley's era will go off the books during the proposed bond's 25-year life. As each old debt is wiped out, payment on the new bond would increase slightly. The total property tax bill of the owner of a $60,000 home would never increase by more than a few dollars a year.

The Washington administration argues that it's bond proposal addresses critical problems long ignored. If there is anything remarkable about this proposal, compared to those of previous administrations, it's how mundane it is. There would be few ribbons to cut, and no new buildings to christen. Nearly 80 percent of the money would be spent on streets, alleys, lights, sidewalks, and sewers. Over two-thirds of Jane Byrne's last bond revenues were used to pay the nearly $95 million it cost to build new fire stations around the city. Byrne was criticized back then for building new structures when the trend in other cities as to renovate existing buildings, to save costs. (Byrne was also criticized for using $5 million in 1982 bond money to pay for the construction of luxury boxes at Comisky Park.)

Unlike bridges and new buildings, the proposed improvements are not the kind of public works project that draw attention, not if completed in time. People don't think about their sewers until their toilets fail to flush. This bond would be Chicago's first in at least 12 years—maybe the first ever, according to the Washington administration—to be dedicated primarily to neighborhood infrastructure.

According to two reports by the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council [MHPC]—one from 1984 and the other from 1982—Chicago, like most older, northern cities, faces a severe infrastructure crisis. The MHPC concluded that Chicago lags far behind most other frost-belt cities in keeping itself up. Street resurfacing is on a 100-year schedule, when all the engineering literature calls for resurfacing every 20 to 30 years. Sewers last around 100 years, according to the literature, but it would take 400 years to replace them all at the rate the city is attending to this thankless responsibility. Some sewers in the city are still made of wood.

There would be no better time than now to start accelerating infrastructure repairs. For one thing, interest rates are at their lowest point in years. For another, construction costs only rise as each season passes—because of inflation, and because as cracks turn into craters the cost to fix them increases. "Sometime down the line we'll be paying for all this," says John Maiorca, deputy director of the city's budget office. "The costs will only go up, and that's not only from the city's point of view. People are going to pay an increasing price, too, for neglect, whether it be a broken axle on their car, a broken ankle, or a damaged basement after a sewer backs up."

In opposing the mayor's bond proposal, the 29 are hurting themselves as well. Michael Sheahan, alderman from the 19th Ward, spoke forcefully against Washington during the debate over the spending of $127 million in Community Development Block Grant money. Sheahan argued that it is only fair that "each and every community" in Chicago receive some of the federal poverty money. His ward was allocated no money under Washington's initial proposal. The problem, from the administration's point of view, was that the 19th is one of the city's richest wards, and was clearly not eligible for this assistance. Washington's council allies tried to impress upon Sheahan that if the mayor's bond proposal, which he as one of the 29 was opposing, were enacted, Sheahan would get five times the money he was asking from the CD budget. The 19th Ward would receive $9.3 million in bond revenues, almost $3 million more than any other ward in Chicago.

Delaying the bond issue until after 1987 is a two-edged sword; the city's 50 aldermen run for reelection along with Washington. Sheahan, Mell, Vrdolyak, and Burke—incumbents with seemingly secure aldermanic seats—don't need to worry much about their reelection bids, at least the way things stand now. But many members of the 29 face tough battles in 1987. Their present stance could mean defeat if the 29, and not the mayor, are ultimately blamed for the city's potholes.

The First Ward's Fred Roti, for instance, represents a majority black ward that Washington carried in both the mayoral primary and general election. Roti is denying his ward $500,000 for a high-tech research park, $1.5 million to upgrade sewers at the Dearborn Park development, and another $4.8 million for other assorted projects. Jerome Orbach is denying the 46th Ward $1.2 million dollars, and his lakefront compadre to the south, the 44th Ward's Bernard Hansen, is denying his ward $830,000, including money for the improvement of the Belmont-Broadway area, a project he has long favored.

(The bond proposal is not the only place majority aldermen have hurt themselves—and their constituents—to hurt Washington. For instance, a few Vrdolyakers represent wards with a Latino majority; yet during the fight over the CD funds, the 29 cut funding to nearly every Latino group included in the mayor's plan, and added few Latino groups of their own. The majority initially cut out the $150,000 in CD money Washington allocated for AIDS research, even though Hansen and Orbach are freshmen aldermen with sizable gay constituencies and tough reelection campaigns ahead of them.)

Yet the Vrdolyakers fight on. "I could use the four miles in [street] resurfacing," Mell said. "We definitely need it here in [the 33rd] ward, and it wouldn't cost that much … I've told our people they should go with this one."

But the 29 continue to block the bond issue, Mell said, because some of them fear that in 1987 Washington would use the public works project in his campaign against them. Washington would be wise to do so, Mell said, but added, "It's also a valid political view to try and prevent that scenario from happening."

How will Mell vote when the bond proposal comes up again? "To keep a caucus of people together … sometimes you have to compromise your own position. In fact, to keep people together on major issues, you have to vote for things you're not happy with … .

"I will sacrifice a vote that probably won't be popular in my community for the good of the coalition."

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