July 23, 2014
Want to up the odds that aldermen can kill any future parking meter privatization fiasco?
Urge them to vote this month to create a sorely needed independent budget office, even if that means some of them may have to give up a little cash used to run their offices.
The City Council this month is expected to vote on creating the “City Council Office of Financial Analysis,” (COFA) mirroring similar entities in Congress, New York City and other cities.
The small office would cover the essential financial basics: reviewing proposed public-private partnerships like the parking meter deal, as well as annual city budgets, audits and rating agency actions. The six-person staff also would be tasked with finding potential cost-saving reforms and efficiencies.
This is necessary because many aldermen and their staffs do not have the skills or the time to thoroughly analyze these financial matters or propose alternatives. Some aldermen think this is about absolving aldermen of responsibility to their homework and giving them cover on tough votes.
We disagree. Ideally, this office will help them do their financial homework in a smarter way and give them objective information (much of it comes from the mayor’s office now). This isn’t about cover. The goal is to arm aldermen with quality, independent information.
It hasn’t come easily. After months of negotiation with three aldermen pushing this — Aldermen Ameya Pawar, Michele Smith and Pat Dowell — the mayor last month agreed to set aside $500,000 to create the office as part of his proposed 2014 budget, a big jump from his original (and unacceptable) opening bid of $250,000.
But instead of jumping to embrace this reform, some Council members are balking. It’s partly because they don’t think it’s needed, but mostly because the mayor’s budget also includes an average cut for each aldermen of about $6,000 to run their offices.
The mayor wants to eliminate a special hiring fund and shift it to each alderman’s expense account, but not before reducing it by $6,000. Some aldermen would face a larger cut, some a smaller one.
Ald. Pat O’Connor, the mayor’s floor leader, linked those moves — the creation of the new office and the reduction in aldermanic budgets — even though backers of the new office were unaware of it until O’Connor said it publicly. Aldermen Pawar and Smith told us there is no link, that the money could come from any where in the budget. That said, they aren’t opposed to shaving their office budgets.
Despite the confusion (deliberate or otherwise), there is a logic to the link: the aldermen have to help pay for the new budget office at a time when the city is battling a deficit.
And more generally, there is broad support for dumping the special hiring fund for aldermen because hires made from that fund don’t show up on the city payroll. Shifting the cash to each alderman’s expense account allows for much greater transparency.
Bottom line: Aldermen cannot with a straight face reject the independent budget office, more transparency in hiring and, however much they don’t like, a small trim to their expense accounts.
Jeopardizing the new office to avoid a $6,000 expense cut is foolish. Plus, a deal to reduce that to $3,000 seems all but complete.
Aldermen, vote to support the new independent budget office. Aldermen, don’t let $3,000 get in the way of preventing another parking meter deal.