Something strange and a little bit unexpected happened in a Chicago City Council committee meeting yesterday:
A lone alderman at the last minute tried to torpedo a proposal backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that was already written into the budget and expected to pass easily into law.
Fortunately, that alderman—Anthony Beale of the 9th Ward—was convinced of the error of his ways with a little friendly arm twisting by some fellow aldermen and one of the mayor’s people.
Which is really good news, because the proposal Beale was trying to stop, the City Council Office of Financial Analysis, is a critical reform and something the taxpayers of Chicago absolutely need.
A little backstory: for a while now, a number of aldermen, including Scott Waugespack (32nd), have argued that the process by which Chicago determines its yearly budget is broken.
They say the process -- which involves the mayor -- takes months to produce a proposed budget but gives aldermen only weeks to study it before voting, doesn't serve the taxpayers very well. Each individual alderman is expected to become an expert on the budget, a daunting task given small staffs and a short time frame.
For 2014, the mayor released his $7 billion budget proposal on October 23rd, and it was voted on November 26th. The budget summary alone released by the City Clerk was 196 pages.
Clearly, the argument goes, to properly do their jobs for the taxpayers and themselves, City Council members need some help.
Earlier this year, Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th) and members of the Council’s Paul Douglas Alliance took up the cause, and Pawar was instrumental in getting Emanuel and others to support an Office of Financial Analysis, or COFA, with around $500,000 budgeted to start.
The new office will be charged with providing separate and independent analysis of the mayor’s yearly budget proposals, as well reviewing any public-private partnerships, asset leases and other major policy proposals that come before the Council.
Which, quite frankly, is an absolute must for aldermen to do their jobs and possibly the most important reform to come down the pike for Council in years.
That’s not to say the office, as envisioned by Pawar and others, is perfect. Questions abound over whether the office will be independent enough, staffed effectively or given enough time to do it’s work on tough and politically expedient proposals.
Unfortunately, none of those arguments were being advanced by Beale in Tuesday’s effort to sink the proposal. Instead, he suggested the office wasn’t needed at all, and that COFA staff would essentially sit around all day wasting taxpayer dollars when it wasn’t budget season.
On this, Beale and anyone who agrees with him is absolutely wrong. There’s little city government could use more than experts outside of the mayor’s office who can analyze, understand and recommend action on complex financial deals and proposals.
Even a short list of the financial issues on the Council’s plate in the next 12 months proves daunting. A $600 million balloon pension payment in 2015, leading to higher property taxes, fewer city services or both. Rating agency actions that will affect the city’s borrowing costs. Infrastructure trust projects slated for review.
Not to mention privatization deals, like proposals for Midway Airport, the Port of Chicago and more. Bond sales, police overtime, TIF revenues—you name it.
Oh, and the need to fully examine next year’s budget proposal.
Clearly, aldermen need help in wading through the sea of information and analysis necessary to serve their constituents effectively. The full Council is expected to vote on—and approve—the office at today’s meeting.
Conversations with a number of aldermen shows few if any fully grasp the real reasons Beale wanted to shut down COFA.
Fortunately, the taxpayers of Chicago can be thankful he didn't succeed.