Inaugural Address of Mayor Augustus Garrett
March 10, 1845
This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.
Fellow Citizens and Gentlemen of the Common Council:
In assuming, once more, the important duties of the honorable station to which the suffrages of my fellow citizens have again called me, I should be recreant to the promptings of my heart if I forbore to express the warm thanks I feel for this reiterated proof of the confidence of that community in which I have so long resided. The fact that my political friends, with great unanimity, as well in their primary meetings as in convention, designated me as the candidate of their choice—that a mass meeting, called irrespective of political preferences, confirmed that nomination by an immense majority, in connection with the truth that my opponent is deservedly one of the most popular and respected among our citizens—all conspire to render the result peculiarly gratifying to my feelings. And yet, I cannot lay the flattering unction to my heart, that this event has been produced by a combination of efforts on the part of personal friends who sought to evince their individual respect and esteem by elevating me to the mayoralty; but rather, that judging from the manner in which I performed my duties on a former occasion and from their knowledge of my character, the people entertained an undiminished confidence that my abilities and energies would be honestly, faithfully, and efficiently devoted to the promotion of the best interests of our already important and rapidly increasing city. It shall be the first object of my ambition, to show that that confidence has not been misplaced; and when I reflect that I am to be prompted by so much intelligence as I witness in the Council by which I am surrounded, I think I may indulge the hope that our combined efforts will meet the just expectation of those who have elected us to the stations we severally occupy.
In the discharge of our common duties, the ensuing year, the most rigid economy will be imperatively required; as I understand that the legislature of our State, in accordance with a petition signed, as well by myself, as by many others deeply interested in the prosperity of our city, have restricted us from imposing and collecting a tax for city purposes exceeding two and a half mills on the dollar.
This will reduce our tax nearly one half, provided the assessment should be made upon the same basis of valuation as that of the past year; but my conviction, founded upon the best information I have been able to obtain, is that the property of the city by the last assessment was estimated in many instances at more than double its actual cash value. Should this prove to be the case, and in future we should graduate our assessment upon a more correct valuation of property, then the amount to be collected the ensuing fiscal year, will be but little over one fourth as much as it was the past; but allowing for the increase of taxable property and admitting that the over estimate was not as general as I believe, I feel assured that we shall not receive over half as much city revenue from taxation as was raised the past season; consequently, unless the money shall be much more judiciously expended, but comparatively few improvements can be made during the coming one.
It will be important, in order to ensure direct action, to ascertain as early as possible, our liabilities and resources; and that this may be accomplished, it will, in my opinion, be advisable that we cause an assessment to be made at the earliest practicable period in the current year; so that after having found the amount of taxable property, and knowing the sum required for the payment of interest on our indebtedness, we shall be able to estimate, with a sufficient degree of certainty, the amount within our legitimate control to be expended in the improvements of our city. By adopting this course and confining ourselves strictly within the limits thus ascertained, we shall avoid all danger of rushing into extravagant expenditures, and of finding ourselves at the end of the year borne down by an oppressive debt, and laboring under the embarrassments of an exhausted treasury and a ruined credit. It is equally as necessary to the prosperity of the city that we confine our expenditures within the limits of our income, as it is that individuals should always observe this cardinal maxim for success. In the selection of an assessor, great circumspection should be used, and an effort made to obtain the services of an individual who, from experience and sound discriminating judgment is not only able to form a correct estimate of the relative value of property, but who will likewise be competent to assess it at the actual cash value. It is feared that during the past year the assessment has been based upon a fictitious estimate, and possibly with the hope and purpose of thus obtaining an amount of money designed to meet extravagant and injudicious expenditures. Perhaps something like the principle which controlled those who caused the words “ordinary times” to be inserted in our appraisal laws for the purpose of making a little property pay a large debt, might have operated to procure an over estimate of our city property. If such has been the case, it is indeed high time for radical reform.
It is believed to be the criterion in other states, as well as in the southern part of our own, and I think it to be the correct one, to assess property at a price which it would command in cash even in the most adverse times. But it appears to me that such has been the influence over our minds by the mania of "36, that even now the inflated valuation formerly attached to property, in this section, is exerting a prejudicial effect upon us. I am well persuaded that the assessment in this county for the purpose of levying county and State taxes was in many instances nearly or quite double that of property equally productive, and in all probability, equally valuable, in the southern part of the State. And it is certain that in some, and probably in many instances, our city assessment was, last year, one hundred and fifty per cent. higher than that for the county. In such cases, assuming the county assessment to be the true value, which I think was fully as high as it should have been, the city and school tax was one dollar and fifty cents on the $100, to which add seventy cents for county and State tax and we have two dollars and twenty cents actually paid on the $100, for our last year’s taxes. But to extend the illustration, in order that the necessity of a correct assessment should be clearly seen, I will suppose that the county assessor should have over estimated as greatly as the one for the city has done, and still assuming the present county assessment to be the true value, then such property would have paid three dollars and twenty five cents on the $100; but if, as I have suggested, the county assessment is relatively 100 per cent. higher than in the southern part of the State, and both our county and city assessors had erred as greatly as I believe the one for the city did, and the valuation in the southern part of the State is really the correct one, then our taxes would last year have reached the enormous ratio of six dollars and a half on the $100. I have elaborated this point more than I should have done, had I not deeply felt the importance of placing before your minds in the strongest light, the absolute necessity of making a judicious appointment of an assessor.
I do not for a moment entertain the opion that the assessment in every case was over estimated as greatly as some to which I have referred. The same mind which could so greatly err, in one extreme was equally liable to the other, and it would really be strange indeed, if in several thousand instances many of them did not approximate to a correct valuation, though the general tendency might have been to over estimate.
The mercantile portion of our community consider that their taxes were last year oppressively burthersome. Taxes for four distinct purposes, (State, county, city, and school, and some of them of the most extravagant character) were levied upon their goods which in most instances were purchased on credit and therefore should not be considered real capital, which, together with the street tax, high rents, & high insurance, have either partially or entirely consumed their profits, so that at the end of the year the merchant has found himself in but little better and in some instances even a worse situation than at its commencement. I would suggest that these things be taken under consideration by the Common Council and if any thing can be done to remove, or lessen these burthens, that a plan having such object in view should be adopted.
That we may free ourselves from the odious and merited opprobrium which a virtual repudiation of our debts has fixed upon us as a people, every effort at retrenchment must be made, every unnecessary expenditure abolished, all official peculation if any exist, prevented, so that every energy of the people may be devoted towards the removal of the dark stain upon our public faith which had been made by our inability or neglect to meet our honest liabilities. And nothing will more effectually tend to produce this desirable object than the restriction or our county and city taxes within the most economical limits.
It is deeply to be regretted that our city should have been so oppressively burthened with taxes during the past year, and this regret is heightened by the general conviction throughout the city that the amount thus drawn from us has been either foolishly squandered or most injudiciously expended. It is indeed most painful thus to allude to the acts of those who have immediately preceded us, and I am only induced so to speak from the hope that in future we may profit by the past.
It appears from the Report of the City Finance Committee that the sum of 2918.19 has been expended in endeavoring to protect the Lake shore from the effects of the action of the water, which since the completion of the pier extending from our harbor, has been constantly making ravages upon the shore south of the pier. Most of this large sum might as well have been expended in purchasing salt and throwing it into the Lake with a view of making a sea on a small scale, as in devoting it to the purpose for which it has been appropriated. If it had appeared that the city property was in danger of being destroyed it would have undoubtedly been the true policy to make such temporary protection as would have arrested the immediate danger, and this could have been effected by driving down a row of spiles that would only have cost a few hundred dollars. If, as is confidently believed to be the case, the damages have been occasioned by the peculiar form of the pier at its termination which is supposed to throw the current against the shore, then a petition embracing such facts as would conclusively establish the truth of this opinion should have been drawn up and presented to Congress, asking for the relief which the circumstances of the case demand; and there cannot be a rational doubt, but that if individuals, or the community have suffered, in consequence of works constructed under the direction of agents of the United States, the party causing the damages should, and without question would have indemnified those who had sustained the injury, and also have provided against its recurrence in future. Our harbor is used as a great national highway, for the business of all, and surely it is in perfect accordance with all established usages, that if in its construction any damages have been sustained, the sufferers should be remunerated, or at least provisions be made to prevent any further injury.
Another very great expenditure has been incurred in the erection of a large building in the first ward, intended to be occupied as a school house. This building it is supposed, will accommodate nearly a thousand scholars. To my mind there are several strong objections against the construction of this edifice, and its occupation for the designed purpose. Its size and cost are too great-its location improper. The other districts should not have been taxed to build this house, in which they have no interest, and from which they can derive no benefit. Its dimensions, large as they are, will not accommodate all of the children in the city, and it is not to be supposed that other houses of similar character can be built in the other districts, so that the benefits and burthens might be equally divided. Besides, buildings of this size, for common school houses are, in my opinion, quite too large, even though the city could afford to incur the expense requisite for their construction.
The number of scholars collected together that would fill a house of such dimensions, would unquestionably be prejudicial to the health, if not the morals, of those who might be congregated, and should a contagion disease break out in our city, its ravages of destruction would be proportionably increased according to the number exposed to its influence. The amount expended in the construction of this house would have been abundantly adequate to have erected a good permanent brick school house in each district of sufficient dimensions to convene every scholar for at least ten years to come. They could have been located so as to accommodate all, and at the same time obviate the objections against such congregated masses of children in one place-whilst all would have shared equally in the benefits of a tax that has now been imposed for the advantage of a comparatively few. In view of the injustice that has been done to a large proportion of our citizens, and because it is impolitic and unwise to build houses of a similar character in other districts and the probable damages that may result from such a congregation of children in one place, and the advantages resulting from the erection of suitable buildings in the several districts, I would suggest to your calm and dispassionate consideration the propriety of ascertaining whether the building cannot be disposed of and the proceeds appropriated to the erection of a good substantial brick school house in each district; thus obviating in a great degree all the objections which force themselves so strongly upon my mind against continuing the plan put in operation during the past year, and furnish, without additional taxation, the means of accommodating the whole city with convenient school houses.-Upon a proper application being made, the legislature would no doubt authorize the lot on which the school house is built to be sold, and that the proceeds might be invested for school purposes in other ways. The house in the first ward might probably be sold for $6000, which would give $1500 to each district and would be adequate to the accomplishment of the object I have suggested.
I regret much that the former laws in relation to the building of school houses have been altered, for had they remained, and each district been compelled to build its own school house, we should not now suffer the evils of which so many justly complain. And I would suggest the propriety of petitioning the Legislature at the earliest practicable period, that the original provisions on this point be restored, and we, as well as others, be relieved from such injustice in future.
Too much credit cannot be awarded to our school agent for the efficient and skillful manner in which he has managed our school funds. Many of the debts that were doubtful, by his untiring industry and laborious exertions, have been rendered available; while some that were deemed "decidedly bad," have by his decidedly good management, been saved to the fund. Out of the wreck and disorder of "36, he has succeeded in collecting together enough, which, if continued to be managed by the same judicious care and skill that he has evinced, will form a fund, the beneficent influence of which will be felt in all coming time. I see by his late report, that about $2,500 belonging to that fund is now available; and it is worthy of your consideration, whether it would not be advisable to borrow that amount; with the appropriation of a sufficient sum out of the first monies coming into the treasury to be applied to the liquidation of the Strachan & Scott bond. These bonds are now bearing an interest of nine per cent.; but in the event that they are not met at maturity, or that the interest; should not be paid as it becomes due, they are to bear twelve percent interest from the date. It is therefore highly important to the interest of the city that these bonds should be canceled; and I cannot conceive how a portion of the school money can be better invested than in city bonds, bearing interest at such rate per cent. as may be thought advisable and within the power of the law. This consideration is of the more importance, inasmuch as the Legislature has lately reduced the rate of interest to be taken after the first of September next, to six per cent. It is consequently unreasonable to presume that the city, after her loans mature, will be able to renew them at such reduced rate so provided by law, or obtain money elsewhere at that rate. The Strachan and Scott bonds will come due on the first of March, 1846, and if unpaid, and the city should be unable to negotiate a loan at six per cent, under the present law, her credit would necessarily be impaired.
There has been, I understand, some discussion before the late Council on the subject of the water lots leased by the city to different individuals. In 1835, if I mistake not, the Legislature of this State passed an act empowering the corporation to lease those lots, without limitation as to time or price; and in pursuance of that power an ordinance was passed authorizing them to be leased, and giving the owners of the lots immediately in the rear of each, the preference of the lease; but in case they did not think proper to lease the lots, they were to be leased at auction. They were bought in good faith, and the owners were compelled to lease them, or be cut off from access to the river. Leases were given, in which covenants were incorporated providing that the lessees should not be molested in their possession by them (the then city authorities) or their successors. These lessees, or their assigns, have incurred heavy expenditures in erecting spacious warehouses on these lots, and during the last year, the city authorities have urged the propriety, contrary to the covenant of their predecessors, of removing them. It is unquestionably true that the covenants of both parties to these leases have been broken; and, as there are many points of vast importance involved in the controversy which must grow out of a litigation of this question, it appears to me that the present is not the most appropriate time for agitating it. Some suppose that these lots legitimately belong to the canal fund, and that the Legislature transcended its authority in authorizing the city to lease them under any circumstances. Others believe the city corporation exceeded their authority, and abused their trust, in giving other than temporary leases to be revoked at pleasure. Some again contend that the owner of the lot in the rear, is entitled to the privileges of the water lots in front; while others imagine that the leased ground was solely designed as a public highway, and can only properly be used for that purpose. I commend to your consideration the propriety of delaying further action on this question until after the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, at which time, if the canal fund shall be thought to have any interest in these lots, appropriate action will undoubtedly be taken to settle this intricate and important matter. I am the more inclined to the adoption of this course, from the consideration that an ordinance has already been passed to postpone the payment of the notes given for the purchase money of these lots, until the title shall have been fully investigated, and finally decided.
Your early attention to the side walks generally, but more particularly to those on Lake street, is imperiously required. During the last year, they have been not only very inconvenient for travelers, but in many instances, especially in dark nights, really dangerous to lives and limbs. In some places, the planks are loose; in others broken out or removed. There are also sudden declivities or irregularities in the grading, varying in some instances nearly two feet. These absolutely unnecessary and dangerous impediments should be immediately removed, and I hope they will receive your early notice. The plan adopted for crossings, has answered our fullest expectations; and I trust you will feel it your duty to extend these improvements to every part of the city.
I would likewise bring to your consideration the propriety of taking immediate measures to complete the important improvement of planking Lake street. This work should be performed wholly at the expense of those owning lots on that street, and the increased value of such lots, in consequence of this improvement, will undoubtedly compensate for the expenditure; which, if the reform I have recommended in taxation, should be carried into effect, will scarcely be felt by the owners. Although I was in favor of this measure in the early part of the last season yet when the oppressive character of the city taxation was ascertained, I thought it better to postpone this improvement until this year. It can as well be done now as at any future time. There may be individuals who will object to it; but should such objections, coming from a few, be listened to this great public improvement might possibly, in the same manner, be prevented for twenty years to come.
It appears by the recent election that there are more than 2,000 voters in this city, and the street tax will consequently amount to over $6,000. Allowing one half of this amount to be collectable, it will be sufficient to make the requisite repairs upon our streets during the current year; and I suggest for your mature consideration the propriety of confining our street expenses strictly within the receipts from this tax, and not allow a dollar to be drawn from the treasury for this purpose, unless in cases of great emergency.
Permit me to draw your attention to a subject which has caused much complaint, and is really a great evil. I allude to frauds committed in the sale of wood, and the great obstructions which are made by teams, having this article for sale, being allowed to stand in the more thronged and business parts of our city. To remedy these evils, I submit to your decision the propriety of appointing a wood inspector, and designating some convenient and proper stand for teams having wood for sale.
I notice by the late Financial Report that there are monies enumerated among the resources of the city due from some of its former officers. This sum amounts to $924,93. I most earnestly call on the council to take immediate measures to enforce the collection of the whole of these monies from the late officers or their sureties. If they are not due, they ought not to be enumerated among the resources of the city, and the officers should be honorably discharged. But if, as I believe, they are due, there should be no delay in enforcing the collection of them, inasmuch as they have been drawn from the pockets of our citizens by heavy taxation.
I perceive by the same document that the sum of 313 53 (exclusive of $78.40 paid for publishing tax sale, and an unaudited bill of $20, which makes an aggregate $411 93) has been paid the last year for city printing. This is indeed a large sum, and in order that we may not hereafter pay a higher price than is necessary, I would recommend that measures be taken to let the printing to the lowest bidder. There are a large number of printing establishments in our city and with such competition as would naturally arise we may reasonably expect to procure the work to be done at its real worth.
Next to the importance of having good and wholesome laws for our government, is the necessity of seeing those laws faithfully and efficiently executed, [editors note: approximately five words are omitted which were illegible in the original] municipal regulations are either totally worthless or only comparatively beneficial in proportion as they are observed or neglected; and, Gentlemen of the Common Council, I entertain the fullest confidence in your wisdom to devise those measures and carry out those projects which shall be most conducive to the general prosperity of the city.
I have been credibly informed that one of the late city officers withheld from the Treasury the funds of the city to a very large amount, thus enabling him to purchase city orders with the money of the people at 90 cents on the dollar, when in fact had the funds collected been paid into the Treasury, the holders of scrip would have been able to obtain par value instead of being robbed of one tenth of their property. If such an outrage has been committed upon our citizens the facts should be elicited in order that the perpetrator may be held up to that odium and contempt his conduct so justly merits.
I hope it may be our object to select honest and competent men for the offices which we are authorized to fill, and when selected to watch with the strictest scrutiny their official acts. They are sworn to a faithful discharge of their duties, and when they fail in the performance of them, it should be the first act of the council to remove such unworthy incumbents, and fill their places with honest men. Those receiving monies should be required to report the amount in their hands at every regular meeting of the council, and should as often pay into the Treasury whatever they may have received.
If we have good ordinances, let them be obeyed in the spirit and to the letter; if bad, repeal them at once; so that in the discharge of our respective duties we shall have the consolation knowing that we have performed them to our own satisfaction and to that of those who elected us to the stations we fill.
An efficient Council can never reasonably be expected when the worthless and the refuse of parties combine together. Such combinations are generally made by men of every principle or rather of no principle, who neither respect themselves nor enjoy the confidence of the party to which they belong, and they seek official station either to gratify some sinister purpose or to wreak their vengeance and malice on some one who may have thwarted their vile purposes. No man who has laid aside those principles which should ever control an honorable mind, be he democrat, whig, or abolitionist, is worthy of any office, and should he be elected, a worthless or corrupt administration will be the probable if not the necessary result.
Gentlemen of the Common Council:
I have felt it my duty to submit the foregoing suggestions for your consideration (not in the spirit of dictation) but for your deliberate reflection, and if they shall be found worthy of your approval , I trust the proper means will be adopted to carry them into effect; and should you differ with me in opinion, and believe other measures better calculated to promote the general good, which I am convinced is the object we all have in view, I shall most heartily and cordially cooperate with you in carrying those measures into execution.
- Chicago Democrat, March 12, 1845.