Snow, Parking and Small Business in the City

At the risk of stating the obvious, when you make it hard to get to a business and expensive to park near that business, you hurt that business. It is a simple equation and the results of it tend to be pretty consistent. Yet, it is an equation that the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, is choosing to ignore.

The Snow Removal Saga

Like any great snow-bound saga, the tale of Chicago's snow removal involves some pretty big characters. In this case a guy named Michael Bilandic and a gal named Jane Byrne. In 1979, Bilandic was the Mayor. Over January 13 and 14 of that year, 18.8 inches of snow fell on the city. This wasn't the first big snow to hit Chicago, but the city's previous mayor, Richard J. Daley, made sure that the streets were cleared--all of them--ASAP. Bilandic, on the other hand, had a more relaxed attitude about snow removal and as a result millions of dollars were lost to businesses of all sizes when the city was paralyzed. What snow removal efforts that were made were ineffectual at best. That February, the poor showing by Bilandic during the previous month's blizzard sealed his political fate and Jane Byrne was swept into the Mayor's Office.

In places like Chicago, snow counts; and every mayor since has known that. At least until now.

Mayor Daley's new plan is to have the main streets cleared but leave the side streets for regular union hours. That means that if a severe overnight snowstorm hits your street, you could well be stuck until the Department of Streets and Sanitation gets around to your area. "Our full route system covers 9,456 lane miles and during a full snow program is patrolled by 274 snow-fighting trucks which use gasoline, spread salt and are operated by salaried drivers, so costs will naturally mount whenever we go out," Department of Streets & Sanitation Commissioner Michael Picardi said.

The troubling thing is that this is only the initial plan, further cuts could be made. For the recent inch-and-a-half of snow the city received, the price tag was $490,000, which can be broken down as follows:

  • Equipment ($143,000)

  • Salt ($295,000)

  • Workers ($51,000)

Somehow, spending a little under a half-million dollars to ensure the safety and passability of the streets of a city this big, a city with some of the highest taxes in the country, does not seem like a major sacrifice to me. The City, on the other hand, thinks that it is. "While safety remains our number one concern," Picardi said in a release, "cost containment is also very important in this age of shrinking revenues and increasing costs."

Feeding the Meters

There are other ways of off-setting the cost of snow removal and Daley just inked a 75-year agreement with a private firm that would do just that. The City Council is expected to approve the measure tomorrow. By 2013, parking meters at prime downtown locations will be $6.50 and hour and $4.00 an hour at other locations. Throughout the city, meters will go up to $1.00 per hour.

How is that going to help downtown businesses? In fact, how is it going to help any business when the cost to the customer goes up like that? It doesn't. All it does is take more money from the private sector and put it into the city government. According to Chicago 36th Ward Alderman William Banks, one of the mayor's staunchest City Council supporters, charging $6.50-an-hour to park at Loop meters and forcing drivers to feed those meters 24/7 would be a "definite deterrent to people visiting the downtown area," hurting retailers and restaurants.

When even his supporters see what would happen and are questioning the wisdom of this, why is Daley so insistent?

The Rationale

The reason is simple, he and other politicians in Chicago and in Cook County say—rightly so—that expenses are increasing and revenues are decreasing, so they have to make up the shortfall somewhere. They point to sharp decreases in business and sales tax revenue and cite the need to maintain public safety, keep the roads up to scratch and get the hosting rights for the 2016 Olympics while complaining that Chicago is no longer the convention capital of the nation and that the city will have to spend millions to defend its unconstitutional gun ban in court.

Does making it more difficult to park your car, or cutting snow removal, help to alleviate any of these problems?

The Bottom Line

Of course not. The problem is that businesses of all sizes are leaving Chicago for more business-friendly locales. Why? Because at every level of government, the idea of prosperity takes a back seat to politics and the overarching demands of government. You can see it in the taxes, the regulations, the unions and you can now see it, quite literally, in the streets. The challenges of snow-bound streets and the expense of higher parking rates will harm small businesses, many of which may well begin to weigh their options. Those in government don't get the fact that when things reach a certain point, businesses can vote with the feet of the owners and there are plenty of suburbs willing to offer them a home.