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Inspector General: City wastes $18 million a year on truck drivers

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago taxpayers are wasting $18 million a year on 200 motor truck drivers who shuttle city crews to work sites, then get “paid to do nothing more than sit in a vehicle” waiting for crews to finish the job, the city’s inspector general has concluded.

In his latest audit pinpointing ways to save money, Inspector General Joe Ferguson argues that long-term collective bargaining agreements that lock in the superfluous position — when city crews could easily drive themselves — are costing taxpayers a fortune.

The investigation was launched last summer after a vehicle carrying two city workers pulled up outside the inspector general’s office.

An employee in the passenger seat got out and painted the curb and fire hydrant while the driver sat behind the wheel, never lifting a finger to assist. When the job was done, the painter returned to the vehicle and the two workers drove away.

Incensed by the incident and emboldened by periodic complaints, Ferguson examined the role of motor truck drivers in nine city departments: Streets and Sanitation, Water Management, Transportation, General Services, Aviation, Health, Fleet Management, Public Library and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Although most of the city’s seasonally fluctuating force of up to 1,800 motor truck drivers are being “used efficiently” while plowing snow, sweeping streets and driving garbage trucks, roughly 200 of them are used “solely to transport personnel and equipment,” he found.

That’s a role that could “easily be performed by another assigned member of the work crew” that actually does the job at hand, Ferguson said.

Sixty-one of the superfluous motor truck drivers work in the Department of Streets and Sanitation Bureaus of Forestry (21) and Rodent Control (40) targeted this week for dramatic service cutbacks.

Change won’t come easy.

A Teamsters Union contract that runs until June 2017 — and pays motor truck drivers $33.85 an hour, which translates to $90,000 a year when benefits are included — prohibits the city from transferring certain driver responsibilities to other employees, except during emergencies. Nor is the city allowed to sub-contract services in a way that would trigger driver layoffs.

Mayor Daley signed the ten-year agreement with the Teamsters and other unions to guarantee labor peace through 2016, when he hoped Chicago would host a Summer Olympic Games ultimately awarded to Rio de Janeiro.

Ferguson argues that the long-term contracts have “hamstrung” the city, raising “many of the same concerns” posed by the 75-year, $1.15 billion parking meter lease.

He’s recommending a new ordinance limiting future collective bargaining agreements to four years that mirror the terms of the mayor and aldermen, with a cost-benefit analysis prior to City Council approval.

As for the current contract, Ferguson is suggesting that it be amended to include a “reopener clause” allowing for renegotiation if the financial condition of the city is “significantly different than at the time of original bargaining.”

He’s also proposing a ban on “side letters” and “restrictive references to unit work” without also freeing the city to “reorganize services based on technology change or operational need.”

“These provisions could prevent the situation that the city finds itself in now: workers, here MTD’s,... sitting idle on the job for hours at a time while being paid by a city burdened with a $1 billion structural deficit,” Ferguson wrote.

But Brian Rainville, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 700 representing motor truck drivers, scoffed at Ferguson’s claim that the city could do without 200 motor truck drivers.

In an arbitration hearing just this week, the city testified that it’s 180 drivers short.

“The inspector general is in the business of doing reports and basically acting as a launching pad for people’s political careers. It’s a p.r. machine. They have to have something to say. But it’s just not true,’’ Rainville said.

“The people actually doing the work and managers managing the work know they don’t have enough people to do the work.’’

As for Ferguson’s proposed “reopener clause,’’ Rainville had two words: fat chance.

“Before this Olympic-inspired contract, there weren’t ten-year contracts, but that’s what the city agreed to. What’s the point of having a contract if you’re just gonna reopen it? When the city was flush, the unions didn’t say, ‘Let’s reopen and get higher wages and benefits.’ You honor your contract,’’ Rainville said.

City Budget Director Eugene Munin said the Inspector General’s report “suffers from a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of collective bargaining, the laws governing union-employer relations, and the dynamics of the negotiation process.’’

Officials said the city had obtained “work rule improvements for [motor truck drivers] that the city has negotiated to protect taxpayers in the last several years,’’ including lower salaries for new drivers and assigning injured drivers coming back to work to smaller rodent control vehicles “rather than being paid to stay at home.’’

The term “paid to do nothing” is a phrase Chicago taxpayers have come to know only too well.

In 2004, the Chicago Sun-Times blew the lid off the Hired Truck scandal, a $40 million-a-year program in which clout-heavy contractors — some posing as women and minorities, others with ties to organized crime — were paid to do nothing.

Four years later, Ferguson’s predecessor, David Hoffman, concluded that Chicago was wasting $21 million a year on garbage collection crews paid to do nothing for 25 percent of their time on the clock.

Laborers and truck drivers tracked by investigators were found to be in bars and restaurants, relaxing at home, sitting in their cars or standing around drinking and, in one case, urinating on the street when they were supposed to be at work.

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