Yesterday alderman Ed Burke offered yet another example of how nothing is quite what it seems in Chicago politics, and how groups of smart people have figured out how to make money off taxpayers even when they die.

Burke has served in the City Council for more than 40 years and, as chairman of the Committee on Finance, is its most powerful member. The committee is responsible for oversight of tax levies; bond and borrowing programs; police, fire, and workman’s comp settlements; and other legislation related to city finances. It has a staff of 23 and a budget of about $2.2 million. And when Burke’s not performing his duties as committee chairman or boss of the 14th Ward, he has a lucrative law practice specializing in tax appeals for, among others, connected developers and city contractors.

Among the items on the finance committee’s agenda this week was a resolution endorsing Mayor Daley’s plan to make nonunionized city employees take 15 unpaid days off—essentially a 10 percent pay cut. After Burke introduced the resolution to the full council yesterday, he took a rhetorical detour, as he is wont to do, and demonstrated, with no small outrage, that the city has other places it could cut costs besides worker pay—such as the contract for transporting dead bodies.

As the Trib reported this morning—and as it reported in 2006—Chicago taxpayers have probably been paying too much for this service for years. Burke, though, appeared to shock his colleagues by sharing a few details he and his staff had just uncovered.

Once upon a time, Burke said, the police department hauled dead bodies to the morgue. But during negotiations with the police union awhile back, the city agreed to outsource the work, and in 2004 they hired Dayton, Ohio-based GSSP Enterprises for about $200 a body.

Somehow, Burke informed his colleagues, the rate climbed to $915 a body within two years.

“When we looked into this we were surprised to learn that other municipalities are able to transport deceased persons at considerably less cost,” Burke said. “In St. Louis, they pay $175 a body. In Detroit, it’s $110. Atlanta pays $45, and San Jose pays $105. And the Cook County sheriff—right here in Cook County, right outside the city limits—pays $130 a body!”

Burke looked up from his notes. “For the life of me I don’t understand why we are paying $915 a body.”

He noted that one of GSSP’s higher-ups is also a travel agent, which had him wondering: “I don’t know where these deceased persons are going before they reach their heavenly reward.”

Burke sternly advised the council that he wanted answers about the body transport fees, but he also needed to make a point about something much bigger: Chicago taxpayers are probably footing the bill for other overpriced city contracts.

“If we go through this whole list we can undoubtedly find lots of savings—before the inspector general issues a report!

Burke had everyone’s attention by this point—he was highlighting such an obvious instance of waste that the usual aldermanic murmurs and chatter and newspaper reading had halted. So now he could deliver the kicker, something about how the council needed to take a knife to the spending side of the city ledger before asking employees to give up pay …

“But we don’t have the luxury,” he said instead.

And so, Burke maintained, the council had to sign off on the pay cuts. “I’m not sanguine about this, but I think we have to do it.”

His argument was persuasive. “We’ve got to save every dime,” said 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell.

“There can be no sacred cows,” added 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly. “Let’s look at all of these contracts.”

“I think it’s time to start at zero and justify every single expenditure in the budget,” said 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran.

“I want to join in calling for those contracts to be looked at,” said 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas.

All of them joined Burke in voting for the salary cut plan, which passed 42-6.

Burke says he’s still going to hold hearings on the cost of transporting the dead.