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City Services Suffer as Workers Reassigned to Safe Passage, Aldermen Say

By Serena Dai | October 9, 2013 8:29am | Updated on October 9, 2013 8:48am
 A Streets and Sanitation worker cleans up broken glass from a bus stop in the 4500 block of North Sheridan Road.
A Streets and Sanitation worker cleans up broken glass from a bus stop in the 4500 block of North Sheridan Road.
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DNAinfo/Quinn Ford

LAKEVIEW — Since the school year began, city workers from various departments have been pulled from their regular duties for a few hours a day to monitor Safe Passage routes throughout the city. Now, some residents and aldermen are complaining about gaps in city services due to the workers being pulled from their wards.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who's been a vocal critic of Safe Passage's sustainability, said he has gotten more complaints from residents in south Lakeview about tree debris sitting "for weeks on end" and delays in ordinance violation ticketing and rat calls. The ward's Streets and Sanitation superintendent has been deployed to Safe Passage routes, Waguespack said.

In the 44th Ward, building inspections have been taking longer than usual because inspectors have been diverted to Safe Passage routes, said Bennett Lawson, Ald. Tom Tunney's chief of staff.

Developers and builders always want routine inspections, such as porch or electrical work examination, to be faster than they are, Lawson said, but the city told the alderman's office that recent delays can specifically be attributed to inspectors being "less available" due to Safe Passage.

Lawson did not know the city was using building inspectors for Safe Passage until the alderman's office asked about delays, Lawson said.

"Smaller things are taking a lot longer," Lawson said. "They're squeezing an eight-hour day into four, five hours."

But a city spokesman said manning the Safe Passage routes "does not take away from their work." The staff performs field work while on the route, city spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in an email.

"City workers have responsibilties in neighborhoods across the city, including neighborhoods where Safe Passage routes are located," he said.

About 100 city employees are assisting with Safe Passage, down from 200 at the start of the school year, McCaffrey said. They do not receive overtime pay for working the route.

The city adopted Safe Passage as a comprehensive plan after Chicago Public Schools shuttered 48 schools, requiring students to sometimes cross gang lines to their welcoming schools. There are 1,200 official Safe Passage workers, all trained and hired for $10 an hour, said CPS spokesman Dave Miranda.

City workers from 15 agencies, including Streets and Sanitation and the Department of Transportation, are only being used on Safe Passage routes in initial back-to-school efforts, Miranda said.

They are not trained like Safe Passage workers are, but are fulfilling a different role, McCaffrey said. They provide services along the route and report unusual activity, he said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy touted the collaboration earlier this year as a commitment to the safety of students, with Emanuel saying the route's staffing could be maintained. 

But the $15.7 million plan has been criticized as mismanaged, poorly planned and unsustainable by the Chicago Teachers Union and City Council's Progressive Caucus, including Waguespack.

Although the city said employees still work in the field while manning Safe Passage routes, Waguespack said North Side workers sometimes must make long commutes to South or West Side schools in the morning and afternoon, leaving little time to clear service requests in a designated ward.

There's a "huge cost" to sending city employees places they're not normally assigned to, Waguespack said.

City employees are also paid more than the $10 an hour of Safe Passage workers. Streets and Sanitation ward superintendents earn an average salary of $88,733, or about $42.60 an hour. Building inspectors earn an average of $90,517, or about $43.50 an hour.

The 44th Ward superintendent, who has been helping with routes, earns $106,884 a year.

"To me, that’s a complete waste of resources when you’re basically just having them sit in the car all day," Waguespack said.

It's unclear when the 100 city workers will leave Safe Passage. McCaffrey said that the city "will not set an arbitrary deadline regarding staffing the routes."

"Routes are constantly being assessed," he said, "and there are day-by-day reviews of staffing needs along the routes, which will continue until we are comfortable that transition to new schools is complete."