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Will Emanuel back privatization transparency measure?

Community and public interest groups are calling on Mayor Emanuel to support a privatization transparency ordinance that is expected to be considered by the City Council Rules Committee on Wednesday.

The Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, submitted last November by Alderman Roderick Sawyer (7th) and sponsored by 32 aldermen, would require a cost-effectiveness study and public hearings when the city seeks to contract out services and operations.

Along with a cost-effectiveness study prior to the award of any contract, Sawyer’s ordinance would require a study of possible alternatives in collaboration with unions representing city workers whose jobs could be threatened.  City workers would also be qualified to bid on contracts through their unions.

Noting concerns over unemployment, wage levels and workforce diversity, the ordinance would require that at least half of contract work be performed by city residents, and that contractors pay wages and benefits comparable to what city workers get for the same work.  It would mandate City Council hearings and approval of contracts over $250,000.

“I have a concern about touting a monetary savings if we haven’t thought about the people that will lose a job, the families that could lose a home and the local businesses that could lose a loyal customer,” Sawyer said when he introduced the ordinance.

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Patients ‘disappeared’ in mental health closings

Last year’s closing of six of the city’s twelve mental health clinics – for a reported savings of just $3 million – was “characterized by poor planning, mismanagement, inaccurate information, and profound insensitivity to clients,” according to a new report from the Mental Health Movement and AFSCME Council 31.

That meant a rocky transition for many clients, while the Chicago Department of Public Health seems to have lost track of as many as two thousand clients whose transition it had pledged to monitor.

According to the report, “Abandoning the Most Vulnerable,” the city listed 5,337 clients in October 2011 when the clinic closings were announced, but its report on the transition this July gave the total as 2,798.

Asked about this, the city told researchers that a March review found only 3,282 “active” cases.  The difference includes clients who weren’t currently seeing a therapist but expected to be able to if necessary – and in any case, between March and July, nearly 500 clients “disappeared” entirely, according to the report.

One problem was that therapists who were being transferred from closing clinics weren’t informed of their new assignments until the very last minute, making it impossible to keep their clients in the loop, said Jo Patton of AFSCME.

The failure to monitor all the city’s clients “represents a signficant lapse at the top echelons” of CDPH, while “the attempt to cover up that failure by simply revising the total number of clients raises serious ethical concerns,” the report charges.

No comprehensive effort

“There was not a comprehensive effort to reach each client and provide them with the information they needed to continue to receive services,” according to the report.

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Public left out of Emanuel’s budget

A Sun-Times headline from last August may be the crux of the matter:  “Rahm hears boos at budget chat.”

Rahm will hear no boos this year.

With virtually no notice from the media, Mayor Emanuel has sharply reduced public participation in the city’s budget process and completely eliminated public information about his budget proposal.

For over 30 years, the city has held open public hearings on the mayor’s proposed budget.  Emanuel has ended that, substituting closed sessions with specially-selected groups.

And while Mayor Daley always released his draft budget in August, Emanuel has released nothing – not even the standard update on expenses and revenues for the second quarter of the year.

On Wednesday, a delegation representing dozens of community and labor groups delivered an open letter to Emanuel calling on him to “release a proposed budget immediately and schedule public town hall meetings to ensure that our communities are involved in all steps of [the budgeting] process.”

“The Mayor’s shift away from community participation is not only a dramatic break with precedent, but also directly contradicts his campaign promise to create ‘the most open, accountable and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen,'” said Elizabeth Parisian of Stand Up Chicago, one of the groups signing the letter.

“I didn’t think anybody could be more closed-door than Daley, but lo and behold, Rahm’s done it,” said Jerry Morrison of SEIU Local 1.  He believes Chicago is now “the only large city in America that has no public process for its budget.”

“Rahm is good on transparency in terms of putting things on the internet,” commented Dick Simpson, a former independent alderman now at UIC.  “He’s not so good on community participation and democracy.”

***

Mayor Harold Washington initiated town hall budget meetings with the 1984 city budget.  “It was very, very important to him,” recalls Alton Miller, Washington’s press secretary and author of “Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man,” who’s now at Columbia College.  “He filled his administration with people who had spent many years working on issues from the outside, banging on the doors of City Hall, and he said, let’s do it right.

“It was important to him that when budgets were being decided, it wasn’t just an inside deal with a few people at the table but was genuinely informed by what people in the neighborhoods said they needed,” Miller said.  “And the best way to get that was with open town hall meetings where anybody could ask a question or raise an objection or take issue with any of the proposals.”

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Sheriff Dart to speak on impact of clinic closings

Sheriff Tom Dart’s warning last year that closing the city’s mental health clinics would add to the burden of the Cook County Jail is coming true, according to the Mental Health Movement.

Joined by mental health professionals and consumers, Dart will discuss the impact of the clinic closings on the jail — including people who could avoid incarceration if they had access to mental health services — at a forum on Wednesday, September 5, at 6:30 p.m. at Episcopal Church Nuestra Senora, 2610 N. Francisco.

Dart will be joined by Crystal Colon of Iraq Veterans Against the War and psychologist Rebecca Paz-Ford of Lurie Children’s Hospital and Northwestern University.  According to MHM, psychiatric hospitalizations doubled in April, after half of the city’s clinics were closed.

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Chicago infrastructure trust – and water privatization?

A new report on private equity takeovers of public infrastructure focused on privatization of water services highlights Chicago’s infrastructure trust and warns of higher costs, degraded service, and diminished accountability.

“The infrastructure trust makes us more vulnerable to a public-private partnership” either to finance water system repairs and upgrades or for an operation-and-maintenance contract, said Emily Carroll of Food and Water Watch, which released the report.  “Taxpayers should be wary of getting a raw deal,” she said.

Mayor Emanuel has said he opposes the sale of Chicago’s water system, but the infrastructure trust is set up specifically to foster public-private partnerships, which Food and Water Watch considers a form of privatization, Carroll said.  In so-called P3s, public control over infrastructure is lost and ratepayers are on the hook for private financing costs, she said.

She points to the experience of Atlanta, which canceled a contract with a private corporation for water system operation in 2002 after huge problems with repairs, including emergency responses, and inflated charges for work done.  When only half the promised savings were realized and revenues fell short, the city requested the company’s billing records and was refused, according to FWW.

Water rates

And while Emanuel recently raised water rates to pay for repairs and upgrades, he could later come back and say more money is needed – and the higher rates would make the system more attractive to private investors, Carroll said.

In investment industry surveys, water systems are rated among the most desirable kinds of infrastructure, according to the report.  One of the Chicago trust’s participants, Macquairie Infrastructure and Real Assets, spent $578 million to purchase a private water company in 2007 – the largest private equity water service deal listed by FWW.

The report cites a trade publication describing Chicago’s $1 billion infrastructure trust as “an industry-backed deal to establish PPPs as a politically and financially viable business.”

Currently “private equity vehicles are armed with over $100 billion” seeking highly profitable investments in public infrastructure around the world, in an attempt “to exploit the lagging recovery of the public sector,” according to the report.

About Chicago it says:  “The city’s primary motivation appeared to be the desire to take debt off city books to give the illusion of reducing its liabilities.  ‘We have a tool here that takes some of the pressure off taxpayers,’ Emanuel claimed.  ‘Use somebody else’s money for a change, rather than theirs.’

“In the real world, however, banks do not provide free lunches.  Chicago will have to repay the private capital investment with interest through user fees.

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Austerity in Chicago

As European voters increasingly reject the austerity program, community leaders here are proposing alternatives to Mayor Emanuel’s agenda of spending cuts and privatization– an approach they say hurts working families and stifles economic recovery.

“We are saying there are ways of looking at budget- and policy-making other than just cut, cut, cut,” said Michael Bennett, a sociology professor at DePaul University, one of the coordinators of a group of local activists and scholars meeting this weekend to develop a local public policy agenda “that gives priority to social justice, balanced community development, and responsible fiscal management.”

The Chicago Equity and Fiscal Policy Initiative will release working papers on the city budget, schools, community and the environment, and economic development and jobs, at a gathering with the theme Act Locally Chicago this Saturday, May 19, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Erie Neighborhood House, 1347 W. Erie.

“We have to focus just as much on neighborhoods as we do on downtown,” Bennett said. “It has not been balanced.”

The working papers and policy recommendations are aimed at starting a conversation, he said. One of their goals is to maintain public services that are threatened by privatization. They’ll talk about reallocating existing resources more fairly, and about longer-term solutions to raise revenues more sustainably.

Devastating

Their initiative reflects concerns that are widespread among community organizations.

“What’s happening under Mayor Emanuel is a microcosm of what’s happening around the world,” said Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative, a citywide coalition of labor and community organizations.

“Politicians are pushing austerity, saying the government has to cut spending, but it’s really devastating to the local economy and to people’s lives,” she said. “It’s the worst thing we can do in economically challenging times. For the economy to have a chance we have to invest in the public sector and public services.

“When you cut resources going to low-income families, you hurt the people who put money back into the economy most directly, she said. “And you end up paying through the back end: when you cut mental health services, it costs you more in hospitalizations, in incarceration.”

The city continues to “move resources out of the neighborhoods and into downtown,” she said, pointing to a $29-million city subsidy for a new office building in the West Loop announced this week.

Regressive

Emanuel has cut taxes on corporations (where profit levels are at record highs) while “focusing on revenue generation that saps working families – quadrupling water fees, installing speed cameras, higher fees and fines,” she said. “We’ve got to have revenue solutions that don’t hurt working families.”

Chicago’s fiscal crisis is compounded by several factors, said Ron Baiman of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Locked in political stalemate, the federal government is cutting domestic spending, and the state’s budget crisis is exacerbated by a constitutional provision mandating a flat-rate income tax. (On top of that, Illinois is one of the top states for corporate subsidies.)

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What about the neighborhoods?

The Grassroots Collaborative is offering visiting journalists bus tours of working-class neighborhoods struggling with violence, foreclosures, and clinic closings — and they’re questioning the millions of dollars being spent on entertainment at the NATO summit.

Buses leave from the Hyatt Regency at 8:15 a.m. on Thursday and Friday, May 17 and 18, and return by 11 a.m.  Information is at thegrassrootscollaborative.org.

Thursday’s tour will cover Little Village, one of the city’s largest Latino neighborhoods, where community groups are working to address youth violence; and Back of the Yards, where one of six mental health centers recently closed by the city is located.

(The two clinics primarily serving Latino communities were closed, as were four of six South Side clinics, and half the bilingual staff was laid off, all to save $3 million.  Having been repeatedly rebuffed in attempts to hold meetings with city officials – including a City Council hearing blocked by the mayor– the Mental Health Movement is planning to march on Mayor Emanuel’s home on Saturday morning.)

Friday morning’s tour will cover Englewood, a poor African-American community hard hit by foreclosures and violence, and Brighton Park, where low-income Latino residents are developing community schools.

Grassroots Collaborative, a citywide coalition of labor and community organizations, is questioning the priorities of spending millions of dollars to host the NATO summit while the city shuts down clinics and schools, said Eric Tellez.

On another level, he said, NATO spends billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars while poverty and unemployment “devastates communities across the country” and “the global poor fall deeper into poverty.”

Party fund

Last month the coalition called on World Business Chicago, which is raising money to host NATO, to donate comparable sums to establish a Neighborhood Jobs Trust.  In recent statements, the group is focusing on the $14 million being spent on parties for the summit.

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Mental health closures causing hospitalizations

With four more mental health centers slated for closing Monday, clinic users and supporters will seek a “pardon” from President Obama tomorrow – and highlight psychiatric hospitalizations that have resulted from the closure of two clinics earlier this month.

The Mental Health Movement will march on Obama’s campaign headquarters, 130 E. Randolph, at 11 a.m., Monday, April 30, to ask for “presidential pardon” for the condemned clinics – and for the clinic users they say will die as a result of the closures.

At 5:15 p.m. on Monday, therapists from the city clinics joined by health advocate Quentin Young will hold a press conference outside the mayor’s office in City Hall to discuss the impact of the closures.

One immediate outcome has been a surge of psychiatric hospitalizations for clients of two clinics closed earlier this month.  MHM knows of 18 such hospitalizations, said organizer Matt Ginsburg-Jaeckle.

One client – who was hospitalized after attempting suicide when she lost her long-time therapist – has been released and is telling her story for a video that MHM will be releasing, Ginsburg-Jaeckle said.

The cost of such hospitalizations (averaging $13,000 each) will eat up any taxpayers savings from clinic closings, according to an MHM report issued earlier this year.

Other issues highlighted in the report include the firing of all bilingual therapists at a time when immigrant communities increasingly need mental health services; the closure of four clinics in South Side communities that have a critical shortage of mental health services; and the diminished capacity of nonprofit providers that are supposed to take up the slack.

MHM members and supporters have been occupying the lot across from the Woodlawn Mental Health Center, 63rd and Woodlawn, since 23 were arrested at a sit-in at the clinic on April 12.  The Woodlawn center is slated for closure Monday.



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