Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm Backs an Independent Budget Office—But Is He Just Pulling a Fast One?

The mayor just indicated support for a new department to analyze the city’s financial deals. Will it get the resources it needs to do the job right?

rahm emanuel

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Pat Dowell (3rd), Ameya Pawar (47th), and Michele Smith (43rd), are the aldermanic trio pushing the creation of an independent budget analysis office for the City Council. If it works as advertised, it would give aldermen some analysis before they vote on such issues as casino gambling, privatizing Midway Airport or, on a more basic level, before they vote on the Mayor’s 2014 budget. 

Five years ago, Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd) introduced an ordinance to authorize such an office.  Rich Daley didn’t want it, preferring to have his own office crunch the numbers and then present them to aldermen. Rahm Emanuel seemed to have the same preference until Monday’s news that he’d back such an office to the tune of about $250,000 a year.

So what made the mayor change his mind? My hunch is he hasn’t really; that he seems about to outsmart his Council critics by embracing a plan so egregiously underfunded that it’ll be a toothless watchdog, a symbol that won’t do much to stem the one-way flow of info from the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget to the aldermen. The independent budget office’s budget, even if it can be tweaked up a bit—and Ald. Dowell told me in a telephone conversation Tuesday that they’re trying to boost it as much as possible—could be eaten up whole by just one proposed asset lease/privatization. 

When the Mayor was trying last spring to persuade aldermen to support his tweaks to the parking meter deal, he hired a private company, Navigant Consulting, to run the numbers. The city paid that company—for essentially a long Memorial Day weekend’s work—$250,000, the annual budget in full for the proposed new office.

During a Q & A interview last month, Ald. Waguespack told me that he had introduced a bill to establish an office about five years ago. He added that a $250,000 budget was woefully inadequate. Here’s a bit from that Q & A:

CF: Ald. Pawar explained to me [last June] that, at least at first, [setting up such an office] involved hiring one person to run the office and a couple of staffers to help him. Pawar estimated that it would cost $250,000-$350,000 a year.

SW: Won’t work…. The volume of contracts that come through… need $8-10 million to start out, to have the right kind of crew come in to get started. You need a city ordinance that says you will have this authority to review every contract, all documentation, all people involved in it…. Have an administrator, 10 or 15 auditors who start digging into every contract. It can’t be a couple of guys…. You’re going to have to bring in economists, heavily data-driven, ton of interviews of all the people who would be involved in it. The mayor’s pumping out contracts every day. A hundred million here and two hundred million there.

When I called Pawar on Tuesday afternoon, he stuck by his cost estimate and he used the word “resource” to describe the office he and his colleagues have in mind. In a Sun-Times story on the office,

Fran Spielman quotes Mayor Emauel as using the same word—“resource.” Pat Dowell also told me that “resource” is “an excellent” word to describe the proposed office.

The words that Emanuel used to describe the office to Spielman were oddly soft and qualified: “It can be helpful in answering some questions and doing some analytical work.… It’s another iteration of some of the reforms we’ve brought. When I was mayor-elect, and I sat down with a number of aldermen, some suggested this would be a helpful addition. It’s kind of like a resource office.”

I called Ald. Wagauspeck but he hadn’t returned my call by post time. Based on my last conversation with him, my guess is he’ll consider this no more than a baby step. 

Yet, in in this era of structural deficits and pension purgatory, Wagauspeck’s suggested $8-10 million annually, to start, is, as Ald. Dowell told me, “absurd.”

In the meantime, both Pawar and Dowell said that they continue to hammer out details of the office with members of the Mayor’s staff; that they’re hoping to bring it before the Council in September and that they hope it’ll be up and running by October when Rahm’s 2014 budget—last year’s was more than 500 pages long—comes before the Council. 

Share

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.