“This is not just a financial decision,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “This is the link between the citizens and the residents of Chicago and their government. This is not whether you’re buying a lambswool sweater or a cotton sweater.”
“This has to be carefully done,” Moss continued, "because otherwise you will have a lot of people who will say this has weakened my relationship to government rather than strengthen it.”
Chicago officials say the city’s 311 hotline receives 4 million calls a year and that outsourcing its operations would help improve its performance during peak hours as well as its ability to serve the city’s many non-English speakers. But they had few details as to how a privately-run system would work because the city has yet to put out a request for bids from outside vendors. The city has already outsourced the call-center operations for water billing, but those private operators are based in Chicago, not overseas.
“The reforms proposed in the 2016 budget are aimed at making 311 more responsive to the Chicagoans who depend on it, more reliable and more efficient,” Emanuel spokeswoman Molly Poppe said. “Similar to recent efforts with the city’s water bill call center, we will expect any new call center operator to have a local presence.”
Cash-strapped cities have long looked at privatizing services or selling off assets as a way to save money, but Chicago in particular has a spotty record with the practice. In a move orchestrated by Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard Daley, the city sold off its parking meters to a private firm, allowing the company to reap the revenues in exchange for a one-time, upfront payment. But the deal has been widely criticized as a loser for the Windy City. The firm has already made well over half as much revenue as the $1.2 billion lump sum it paid to Chicago, and it will continue to earn 100 percent of the revenue for nearly seven more decades under the agreement. Selling off the parking meters and privatizing services is like “burning your furniture to heat your house,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents city employees.
Emanuel, a Democrat, ran for office criticizing the parking-meter deal, and in his budget speech last week he specifically pledged not to sell off city assets. That sale, and the political blowback it generated, is now cited as a cautionary tale for mayors nationwide and has slowed the move to privatization that began more than a decade ago.
“I think since then the enthusiasm for privatization has tempered somewhat,” said Ron Littlefield, the former mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Littlefield, who left office two years ago, told me that when they looked at privatizing services, they focused on those “that don’t touch citizens directly.”