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Make city independent budget office real

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo.   |  Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:18AM

In the post-parking meter deal world, it’s abundantly clear that city aldermen — and all of Chicago — would benefit from an independent budget office to help them analyze financial transactions and annual budgets.

Members of the U.S. Congress have one. So do city council members in New York City and Pittsburgh.

Now Mayor Rahm Emanuel is even on board, making a point of getting the good word out last week.

An attempt to burnish good-government credentials at a time when he’s getting hit on various fronts?


But what matters most is this: The cause is a good one, and Emanuel’s support gives this cause the lift it deserves.

But a token independent budget office won’t do. And Emanuel’s opening bid — a $250,000 budget — would pay only for symbolism. In San Diego, that amount covers only the top salary in the city’s independent budget analyst office, Ald. Michele Smith tells us.

“I’m confident that the Council as a whole would be hesitant to support an office that wouldn’t be up to the task, I certainly would be,” Smith told us.

That’s why she and two other aldermen leading on this, Ameya Pawar and Pat Dowell, are busy negotiating with the mayor’s office. The most important topic is scope. Annual budgets and potential privatization deals are a given, but what else might this office analyze? Its scope must be tightly focused to ensure its resources are well spent.

It’s also worth considering guaranteeing the office a percent of the city’s budget to insulate it from political tampering. That’s how New York’s independent budget office gets its $4.4 million annual budget, enough to hire 38 employees. New York City’s locally-funded operating budget is $50.3 billion, which includes schools and other sister agencies, according to their independent budget office. Chicago’s locally-funded operating budget is $6.5 billion, excluding the schools and other agencies.

The budget office also needs to be truly independent, with no ties to any standing City Council committees.

Once the office’s scope is clear, the cost to run it well should be relatively easy to determine. A low-ball figure of $250,000 is clearly insufficient, but given the city’s finances, no one is expecting the moon. And we appreciate that the office could grow over time as it proves its worth. But its proponents — and everyone smarting from higher parking meter rates — are expecting more than window-dressing.

“We have a bite at the apple now and we need to make sure that bite is substantive,” Dowell said.

The goal is to have a proposal before the Council at its next meeting in September.

Let’s hope it’s worth the effort.

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