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The Governments (plural) of Chicago

February 18, 2016

For anyone interested in good, old, stuff, the reference desk at the Chicago Public Library is a great resource.  A few days ago I walked in and asked for a way to try to look at Chicago in 1960.  The librarian immediately walked into the back shelves, and came out with a great book called “The Governments of Chicago,” from 1958.

The book’s preface began with the following sentence:

“This book is designed to introduce the reader to the maze of political and administrative relationships that are the Governments of Chicago.” 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone trying to come to grips with the moving chessboard framing the politics and financial condition of Chicago will realize that this book made a wise choice referring to the Governments (plural) of Chicago.

The average Chicago citizen is walking around on real estate with a number of different, overlapping governmental jurisdictions, each of which poses financial implications for any single taxpayer. The City of Chicago, the Chicago Public Schools, Cook County, and the State of Illinois are all examples of overlapping entities, each providing costly services.  Calculating the full ‘Taxpayer Burden’ for a Chicago citizen requires analysis and assessment of his or her exposure to the multiple layers of government that are borrowing money, with future tax implications.

There are a number of great sources of perspective in this book, which we aim to use as part of a broader assessment of Chicago today.  Written in 1958, the first thing to note is that the Illinois State Constitution of 1870 laid the legal foundation at the time, which has since been supplanted by the Constitution of 1970.  The evolution in the legal environment framing city and state finances is worth looking at as part of any assessment of city finances today.

One constraint that the 1870 Constitution imposed was that city indebtedness could not exceed 5% of the value of tangible property.  We will be looking at how this constraint worked in practice, and how well, and how it might be compared to current “constraints.”

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