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Alderman blames CDOT for unspent ‘menu’ money

Updated: February 27, 2013 1:19PM



An angry Northwest Side alderman on Wednesday blamed engineering slowdowns in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for the $616,365 in “menu” money he left on the table in 2012.

Ald. John Arena (45th) said it’s unfair for Emanuel to prohibit aldermen from carrying over unallocated money from their $1.32 million-a-year neighborhood improvement allowance when the Chicago Department of Transportation lacks the manpower to move projects out the door.

“I don’t think it’s fair to blame aldermen and say we’re leaving money on the table for projects important to residents of our ward when we’ve done everything we need to do. I’ve submitted all my stuff on time,” Arena said.

“What the administration needs to do is staff up enough people to engineer these projects in the timeline the mayor is asking to be done. All I can do is identify the projects and ask them to engineer them. I’ve already done that. It’s sitting on an engineer’s desk in CDOT. If CDOT needs more people to engineer these projects, they should hire them. I’ve done my job. They need to do theirs.”

Peter Scales, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, could not be reached for comment. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) has also blamed CDOT delays for his $588,072 balance.

In an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times, mayoral spokesperson Kathleen Strand attempted to shift the focus back to the aldermen.

She argued that 2012 menu options were delivered to aldermen “months earlier” than in prior years, paving the way for the city to tackle a “large backload” of projects bankrolled by “unprogrammed menu money” left over from prior years.

“The new policy simply requires that funds needed to be programmed by the end of the year. This means that aldermen have a full year to tell CDOT how they want to spend their menu money. It isn’t required that projects needed to be designed, bid and built by those dates — just programmed,” Strand wrote.

“There are many reasons why a project would need more time: coordination with other projects; complexity of the project; leveraging additional funding sources. A tremendous amount of city and third-party utility work kicked off in 2012 including…Smartgrid, water upgrades, and street paving, and for the first time it is being coordinated by CDOT to save the taxpayers money and time.”

Initiated by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and treasured by the City Council, the $66 million-a-year menu program gives each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen $1.32 million to spend on infrastructure repairs and security improvements of his or her choosing.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Arena and Cappleman were among 13 Chicago aldermen who together left $4.7 million of their menu money on the table in 2012 — including one alderman who failed to spend 75 percent of his neighborhood improvement allowance.

That forced Emanuel to bend his own new rule prohibiting carryover of unallocated funds from one year to the next.

On Wednesday, Arena said his inbox was inundated with emails from constituents who accused him of failing to do his job.

“I guarantee you I’m gonna have calls all this week about why I didn’t spend my money and nobody is gonna say, `We understand the city is notoriously slow.’ This is political now. Now, it’s the aldermen not doing their job. We already get accused of that all the time,” Arena said.

Until projects are engineered and the “actual cost” is identified, menu money allocated by aldermen will appear in the unspent or leftover column, Arena said.

‘I’ve actually allocated more than $1.32 million to make sure I use all that money. When they come back with the actual cost, I can fund projects 1 through 10 and leave 11 and 12 for next year,” he said.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) had a similar explanation for the $251,163 left in her 2012 menu account.

“These are projects where the money is allocated, but they can’t physically execute it because there’s design work. It’s like working on your house. It’s not a flat rate. CDOT literally goes out and estimates it. Every menu item is done this way. Same way it takes time to redo your kitchen, it takes time to estimate it and design it,” Smith said.

Smith noted that $200,000 of her menu money was earmarked for a long-awaited overhaul of a Gold Coast playground. The Goudy Park project is partially bankrolled by the Chicago Park District and by a fundraising drive engineered by local residents.

“If you want to work on a playground or school and you want to do it correctly, it takes time to design it, Smith said.

“There are some wards that have a reputation of not spending their money. That’s not my ward. There’s no story in the 43rd Ward.”



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