Bureaucrats' homage to governmental idiocy


November 22, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

If we are going to reinvent the federal government, as President Clinton vows, the first thing that should be done is to appoint a chief nickel-biter.

This cheapo-czar, as he might also be called, would be in charge of a Department of Nickel-Biting, which would be made up of people who have never been bureaucrats, who loathe bureaucrats and have experience making a living in the real world.

Ideally, they would be individuals who have built and run small businesses despite the snooping, stumbling and bumbling of intrusive bureaucrats.

If we had a chief nickel-biter, it's certain that we wouldn't be watching the dollar-draining saga of Chicago's North Side Social Security office. By now, empty heads would have rolled.

This all began when some bureaucrats decided that they needed a new Social Security office on the North Side.

Actually, they were already renting one at a privately owned building and there was little wrong with it. It was near public transportation and parking, and the neighborhood is stable by city standards.

But some bureaucrats decided they didn't like the longtime landlord. Why? The bureaucrats won't say. Maybe he stapled some government forms instead of using paper clips, causing someone to break a fingernail.

So they decided to move to a new location -- a beat-up office building/roller rink in the depressed Uptown neighborhood that had been empty for 18 years. Over those years, the dump had been whacked with almost 70 citations for city building code violations.

It's also in a neighborhood that has a much higher crime rate and is conveniently located near some tough taverns.

However, the bureaucrats liked it. In fact, they liked it so much they were willing to pay $28 a square foot in rent, although better property in that area was going for only $10 to $16 a square foot. There is no accounting for bureaucratic tastes.

When I wrote about this goofy decision, community leaders yelled and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski put aside his stamp collection and vowed to investigate.

That was more than a year and a half ago, and here is what's happened since:

The bureaucrats decided that maybe they shouldn't move into the run-down, overpriced old roller rink after all. But because they had made a deal with the landlord, they paid him about $1 million to soothe his hurt feelings. Those are your tax dollars at work.

Then they moved the Social Security office to temporary quarters in another location, although the guy they had been renting from for 15 years said he'd put up a brand-new building and rent it to them at a reasonable price.

They snubbed him. But he put up the new building anyway, and now he is renting it to a state agency.

Meanwhile, Rostenkowski got Congress to toss in several million dollars more so the bureaucrats could build their own new Social Security building. So, what's a few million? Mere grains of sand on the great government beach.

Then the bureaucrats set out to find a new location.

That shouldn't have been difficult. There is a big empty bank building in that area, a big vacant supermarket and others. If the bureaucrats glanced at the business section of any newspaper, they'd know that Chicago, like other big cities, has a glut of available office and commercial real estate.

And if they were once willing to rent a roller rink in a dangerous neighborhood, you would think a bank building or supermarket in a safer neighborhood would serve them just as well.

But that isn't the way the bureaucrats do it. That would make too much sense.

Instead, they decided that they liked a location in a thriving shopping area that is already occupied by 10 small businesses and several apartment buildings.

They would buy the land, relocate the businesses, tear everything down, and put up their fine new monument to governmental idiocy.

There were immediate screams from some of the small businesses, which include an antiques shop, a wine and liquor merchant, a couple of beauty parlors, a medical office, an auto repair store and others. And the people who live in the apartment buildings, some of which are being rehabbed, weren't delighted, either.

As some of the businessmen pointed out, being relocated isn't very good for the profit column. You can lose your regular customers, but the government doesn't cover that.

And it doesn't find jobs for the employees who will be put out of work when the relocated businesses go belly up.

Then there are the local real estate taxes, sales taxes and other license fees, which all of the existing properties pay. Chicago needs every buck in local taxes it can get. But a new Social Security building wouldn't be paying one nickel.

All it will do is wipe out a bunch of self-reliant small businesses, which the local residents patronize, kill off some of the neighborhood character and replace that with a sterile government building occupied by a bunch of desk-bound paper shufflers.

And they will spend many millions doing it.

So if we are going to reinvent government, we need a chief nickel-biter.

And maybe something else.

What's the going price for a guillotine?

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