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Aldermen create independent budget office

Updated: January 14, 2014 12:04PM

The City Council won’t have to take Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s word for it the next time the mayor tries to privatize a city asset, raise taxes, renegotiate the parking meter lease or expand the scope of ticket-spewing surveillance cameras.

Aldermen will have their own $485,000-a-year Office of Financial Analysis to research and assess mayoral initiatives and budgets with six full-time employees.

With Emanuel’s blessing, the City Council voted Wednesday to take what Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) has called “one of the biggest reforms ever” for a City Council that legendary Ald. Paddy Bauler famously said “ain’t ready for reform.”

That may turn out to be an exaggeration — just as many of Emanuel’s bold savings claims turn out to be.

But it’s a big change for a City Council vilified for its lightning-fast approval of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s lopsided 75-year, $1.15 billion parking meter deal without an independent analysis to determine whether Chicago taxpayers were getting the shaft.

To help bankroll the new office and its six full-time staffers, Emanuel is reducing — from $26,000-a-year to $23,000 — the amount of money allotted to each of the 50 aldermen for hourly or contractual employees.

The $23,000 will be added to the $73,280-a-year aldermanic expense allowance to get around Shakman complaints about contractual employees. But aldermen will have $3,000 a year less overall to spend.

That didn’t sit well with many aldermen, who are often forced to dip into their own pockets or political funds to cover excess expenses.

But with the 2015 election fast approaching, most were afraid to take a stand against a so-called “good government” reform that aldermanic challengers could use against them.

The only alderman who dared to speak out was Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who wanted to bankroll the new office on an hourly, “pay-as-you-go” basis.

Beale argued there was not enough work to do to occupy six full-time employees. But his alternative plan was buried in a subcommittee by Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

The ordinance approved Wednesday clearly defines the responsibilities of the new Office of Financial Analysis.

It’s empowered to analyze the mayor’s annual budget, quarterly reports and city audit; present aldermen with a report on “budget options reforms and efficiencies”; review privatization deals and asset leases; and analyze actions taken by Wall Street rating agencies.

It will have those duties “and no others” unless Austin makes a specific request, the ordinance states.

The City Council’s Progressive Caucus has argued that those responsibilities should be broadened to include all city contracts over $5 million.

But that’s a power no mayor has relinquished since the Council Wars power struggle 30 years ago and Emanuel is not about to give it away.

Pawar has called the ordinance a “great start” and said, if need be, the powers of the office could be expanded.

He has noted that Chicago is just over one year away from being required by law to make a $600 million payment to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 percent and 25 percent of their respective liabilities.

“The office itself represents one of the biggest reforms for City Council ever — or that’s been passed in 25 years,” Pawar has said.

“We have 2015 coming up. We’ve got the massive debt load. We’ve got a pension crisis. You need to ... have independent analysis if we’re going to be a co-equal branch of government.”

By embracing the change, Emanuel scores points with independent voters he needs to shore up his re-election bid. The only question is whether the new office will be so independent it will ultimately become a thorn in the mayor’s side.


Twitter: @fspielman

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