Inaugural Address of Mayor Monroe Heath
July 24, 1876
This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.
To the Honorable Common Council of the City of Chicago:
The financial condition of the city of Chicago, in all its details and aspects, has been so thoroughly investigated and discussed, both by this Council, the public and the press of the city, that I consider it unnecessary to again enter into these details with you; but, in assuming the position of the Mayor of the city, it may not the improper that I should address to you in a general way a few words in relation to the matters which so deeply concern the welfare of this community. I know well the great interest that is felt by all classes in our municipal affairs, and that they are looking forward with hope to a speedy adjustment of all the complications which have arisen from our present financial embarrassment. I know well, also, that the trusts imposed upon me and upon you to execute are very complicated and difficult, and I enter upon the discharge of my duties with great diffidence, but with the single aim and purpose of devoting myself to the direct duties of the office, and I shall in that capacity know no party, nationality or class. In the short time I shall occupy this position it will be my earnest endeavor to act impartially, and, with your aid and assistance, to do what I can to restore this city to a sound financial condition, and to that end I ask the aid and assistance of all men who have the welfare of this city at heart to come forward and contribute their influence and their means toward maintaining the public credit and upholding the honor of this city.
I will not therefore recite to you in detail the assets and liabilities of the City, or their condition and nature, as I am well aware in the few months you have constituted this body you have become familiar therewith, as shown by the report of your Finance Committee submitted to you on the 3d of this month, and which has in different ways been advertised and brought to the knowledge of the people. Your subsequent acts also indicate to me that you have not studied our condition in vain, and that you are entering the road which will lead us in time out of our difficulties—the road of retrenchment and economy. Aside from our embarrassments, due entirely to local causes, and which necessitate the most rigid economy in the administration of our affairs, you must recognize that times are hard the world over; commerce languishes, industry is prostrated, trade has fallen off, values have shrunk, real estate has declined, failures are constantly taking place, and thousands of men are out of employment. The taxes upon our real estate have become very onerous, and in some instances, especially so where the property is unproductive, though improved, the tax-payer finds it difficult and often impossible to pay them. But while the City and the people, both from local and general causes, are thus depressed and embarrassed, you must recognize that other cities are not wholly free from the ills which effect us—that Chicago does not know such a word as fail, and that no honest, intelligent, or public-spirited citizen will permit the repudiation of one jot or title of our obligations, or the withdrawal of that protection to life and property which this City is bound to furnish her people.
We must, in any event, and under all circumstances, supply the necessary wants of this community; our people must be protected, and the personal safety, and the peaceful calling and employment of every citizen secured. I see no good ground, even after looking at the situation from its darkest standpoint, for the despondent feeling which has become fashionable of late with some of our people.
We have rebuilt in five years a marvelous city out of the ashes and broken fortunes of the old: for years we have been carrying on the most gigantic system of public improvements, and have rivaled in a short time the works of our oldest cities.
Our unbroken march of material prosperity in the past has naturally produced a degree of recklessness and of extravagance which, with several large defalcations and the loss or delay in the collection of our public revenues by the failure on the part of our citizens to pay their taxes, and the seeming inability of our Legislature to make wise or legal enactments, all have contributed to our present condition. With our past experience, and with a people alive to the great necessity of watching and protecting the property and rights of citizens; with a better knowledge of our condition, and the absolute necessity to extend to our government a proper and enlightened support. I do not think we need look forward to a repetition of the chief causes of our present troubles. Can we not, then, overcome all our difficulties?
I certainly think that we can, if we are true to our trust and the people of this city are true to themselves, and will supplement their words with their acts. In the first place appreciating the times and our condition, our retrenchment must be thorough, searching and comprehensive, and we must convince the world that it is so. You must not skim over the surface of things; you must dig down below the roots, and, if necessary, instead of pruning, pluck out both root and branch. All public improvements, except when imperatively demanded and required, should be stopped. You should not only investigate the expenses of each department of the city and ascertain if they can be reduced, but you should investigate and decide whether the department itself could not with advantage be modified, consolidated or abolished. In my opinion, if we gain the confidence of the public by the thoroughness and intelligence of our official conduct, our ultimate success is a question of a very short time, for the public will not see the plighted faith of this city forfeited, and capital will again stand ready to invest in our securities.
I also call your very careful attention to the subject of taxation and the laws for the collection of the public revenue. In the absence of fraud, successful tax-fighting should be simply impossible, and even now, though collecting our revenues under the general laws of the State, we have no reason to be satisfied with a system which enables the tax-fighter to at least delay payment from one to two years after judgment. While this is a subject beyond your power to control directly, it is to the safe and speedy collection of our revenues that we must ultimately rely, and your careful consideration of the subject is asked that you may, at the proper time and through the proper channels, suggest a more simple, safe, just and uniform revenue system in its operation.
I would also suggest that it might be profitable for you to inquire into the advisability of disposing of all or a portion of the unnecessary and unproductive real estate of the city, and including the block of ground known as the Lake Front, and situated between Monroe and Randolph streets, but reserving to the city, for obvious reasons, the water privileges or riparian rights. You have ample authority conferred upon you by the General Assembly, under our charter, to regulate and control almost every subject which can in any manner effect the public interests, and I should not attempt to instruct so experienced a body of men as compose this Council in regard to their duties, but I trust the entire field of our municipal expenditures, including the departments of Health, Public Works, Water, Police, the lighting of the streets and public buildings, and all incidental expenses, and the efficiency of the public service, will be closely scrutinized by you, with a view of putting the city on a footing in keeping with our condition and our revenues; and to this end you should use all possible dispatch in reducing our expenses, as you are aware under your ordinance only 75 per cent. of the tax levy of 1876 can be drawn upon to meet the expenses of the fiscal year.
One of the most important questions of our consideration is whether the uncollected taxes for the years 1873 and 1874, amounting to about $1,800,000 can be collected. The Supreme Court has recently decided, as you are aware, in one of the tax appeal cases, that the tax act under which the city has been attempting to assess and collect its taxes is unconstitutional, on the ground that, in the opinion of the court, it is a local special law. A petition for the re-hearing of the cause has been prepared, and it is confidently expected that a re-hearing will be granted. But even upon the hypothesis that the court will not grant a re-hearing, but will adhere to its opinion, the Law Department, after serious consideration of the matter, are of the opinion that the taxes can be collected. The reasons on which the Law Department base their opinion are briefly as follows: The Supreme Court has decided that under the general revenue law of the State which went into effect July 1, 1872, any city in the State could have certified to the county clerk the amount which it required to be raised by taxation for any year, and that upon such certificate being filed with the clerk it would have been his duty to extend the amount certified against the assessed value for State and county purposes, as assessed and equalized by the State Board of Equalization; and that the taxes could have been collected in the same manner, and by the same officers, as provided in the general revenue law in relation to State and county taxes. Valid assessments for State and county taxes were made and equalized in the years 1873 and 1874, and the assessment books have been preserved as required by law. The amounts which the city required to be raised by taxation for the years 1873 and 1874 have been legally ascertained by the appropriation and levy ordinances for these years respectively. There are other cities in the State which, like the city of Chicago, have attempted and failed to collect their taxes under the city tax act.
In the opinion of the Law Department their is no constitutional limitation in the power of the Legislature to provide by law that all such cities may certify the amounts which they respectively required to be raised by taxation for the years 1873 and 1874 to the County Clerk, and it shall be his duty, upon such certificates being made, to estimate the tax due from each parcel of land or person by extending the amounts as certified against the assessed and equalized value of property for the year, for which the amount of taxes is certified, and carry the taxes so ascertained forward in the collector’s books as uncollected taxes. It is true that many persons have paid their taxes for the years 1873 and 1874, but if the law under and by virtue of which the taxes were ascertained was, as the Supreme Court has decided, unconstitutional, then such payments were, in contemplation of law, merely voluntary. But, notwithstanding this, parties having so paid would equitably be entitled to a credit on account of the taxes of those years to the amount paid by them, and the law should so provide. Thus it would obviate any objection on the ground of want of uniformity. If it should appear, upon the taxes being extended as indicated, that the tax against any person should be less or no more than the amount paid, then no tax would be collected of such person. The taxes of the years 1873 and 1874 became by the laws of the State a lien upon realty on the first day of May in those years, and the Supreme Court has frequently decided that after taxes became a lien they so remain until paid; that they became a lien not by virtue of the assessment and levy, but by virtue of the statute, and that the assessment and levy are only means of ascertaining the amount, the payment of which will discharge the lien.
If, then, these taxes can be collected ultimately, and I certainly believe they can, we have even now assets on which we will in time realize in excess of our liabilities; but in the meantime our relief must come first from ourselves by placing our expenses behind our available income, and in your endeavors to accomplish this by wise and well-considered legislation you may rely, gentlemen, on my constant and cordial co-operation.
- Chicago City Council. Journal of the Proceedings, July 24, 1876, p. 113–14.