Opinion: Council Budget Office A Great Idea That Doesn't Go Far Enough

Alderman and mayor announce Council office to evaluate budget and financial proposals

Before I start, let me say one thing: Congratulations, Alderman Pat Dowell (3), Alderman Michelle Smith (8) and Alderman Ameya Pawar (47). Truly outstanding work.

On Thursday, the three aldermen announced Mayor Rahm Emanuel had agreed to the creation of an independent City Council budget office as part of the mayor’s proposed 2014 budget. Known as the City Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA), the 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.

Sort of an extra set of eyes and ears on financial issues for the city of Chicago, if you will.

Pawar and others worked hard to create the office since he proposed the idea last summer, and were able to increase funding for the office from an original estimate of $250,000 to around $500,000 when it was announced. Pawar told Ward Room he hopes the proposal gets approved in November and hiring can start early next year.

There’s little doubt the City Council and Chicago need such an office. Unlike other cities, the mayor’s multi-billion dollar budget proposal lands with a thud every year, and must be passed in a relatively short amount of time. Many reform-minded alderman have long complained the current budget process in Chicago doesn't leave enough time or independent analysis to consider alternate possibilities.

Pawar noted the office was modeled after similar functions in San Diego, Pittsburgh and New York City, all of which were triggered by financial crises and voter referendums. The fact that Chicago didn't need to flirt with bankruptcy or put the matter to a vote shows how much Mayor Emanuel was behind the idea, Pawar says.

And while the office was announced in a notable spirit of cooperation, the devil, as always, is in the details. And, since this is Chicago, in the politics as well.

In Chicago, major policy proposals such as the yearly budget, public-private partnerships and asset leases come in many different flavors. Often, however, they are presented politically as "take-it-or-leave-it” propositions, worked out in advance before being presented to the Council for an up-or-down vote. Just as often, the mayor’s office has also twisted enough arms in advance to ensure passage in Council, no matter what anyone else says.

Take, for example, the notorious Chicago parking meter deal, both the original and revised versions. In the first deal, alderman were given roughly 72 hours to come to a decision, after being told the value of the deal would be lost if it wasn’t approved immediately. In the revised version, the Council was given a month, despite there being numerous outside voices saying the revision was little better than the original deal.

Unfortunately, the budget office deal that was struck looks to do essentially very little to change such a situation. Even if the office is able to provide independent analysis of a budget or proposed deal—a big “if” in a Council and city where little activity remains untouched by politics—there’s no stated mechanism to delay voting on legislation until the COFA could do its work.

On a 75-year, $1.6 billion parking meter deal or a $8.7 billion proposed budget, that’s likely a lot of analysis. As presented, there’s nothing in the COFA deal that suggests that the Council couldn’t continued to be pressured into voting on proposals long before any independent opinion arrives.

Further, there’s the question of whether COFA can do it’s job with the information it has. In Chicago politics, information is often power, and both Emanuel and former Mayor Daley have withheld critical information pertaining to proposed deals before the Council voted.

In 2011, for example, calls for additional information on a deal to choose the concession manager for O’Hare Terminal 5 went unheeded before the Council voted 45-3 to approve. Whether and how the COFA can compel the disclosure of such information in the future remains to be seen.

Finally, there’s the question of how independent the office is going to be. By placing it within the confines of the City Council itself, the office may well find itself beset by political pressures that could hinder its effectiveness. Other cities, most notably San Diego and New York, have taken steps to ensure their budget watchdogs operate as freely as possible and more like the Congressional Budget Office—a separate agency protected from political meddling.

In New York in particular, the IBO is seen as both truly independent and capable of challenging the mayor, a task Chicago’s City Council has proven woefully inadequate in doing for decades.

As Ald. Pawar and others have said, the COFA is long-awaited, much-needed and important reform to how Chicago and the City Council considers and approves the yearly budget and other proposals. Yet the challenge lies in making sure today’s spirit of cooperation isn't taken for granted, and building in real steps to address ways the office could be stymied down the road from fulfilling its intended function.

Thankfully, there’s still time before Council approves the deal. Maybe they can show how serious they are about reform and take the steps necessary to make sure the new office can do its job effectively for the taxpayers of Chicago.

For me, I’d love to be able to say congratulations to alderman Dowell, Smith and Pawar once again.  

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