Upon further inspection

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The debate (if you want to call it that) over the latest proposal to strengthen the role of the inspector general centers on whether the office should be allowed to investigate aldermen. But the effectiveness of the measure really hinges on a provision that would expand the office’s budget and shield it from a politically inspired axe.

“To protect the inspector general’s office from retaliatory budget cuts from either the mayor or the city council, our proposal locks in a minimum annual budget amount for the inspector general’s office of no less than 0.15 percent of the entire city budget,” alderman Joe Moore, the chief sponsor, said yesterday.

It's not like aldermen haven't been tempted to take a hatchet to the inspector general's budget before--IG opponent Berny Stone proposed it last fall, and other aldermen have previously expressed their displeasure at the office spending money they'd rather have for, well, almost anything else.

But the proposal from Moore and his allies would do more than protect the office's budget--it would hike it dramatically. This year it would go up 50 percent, from $5.9 million to nearly $9 million.

Inspector General David Hoffman has so far declined to comment to the media on this proposal (or another floated by Daley ally Pat O’Connor), but Moore said he’d called Hoffman and “ran it past” him. “He thought it sounded good,” Moore said. “I haven’t gone into any detail with him about how the money would be spent, but I think, based on previous conversations, that he’d like to do more audits.”

Most of the office’s current budget goes toward salaries for its 65 full-time employees, and most of its employees (43) are assigned to investigations of corruption and fraud in city government. Less than 10 percent of the office’s funding is designated for auditing city departments and programs to find more routine waste.

Moore predicted that this would result in savings far exceeding the extra budget costs. "It would pay for itself," he said. But even if the office could use a funding boost, it’s not clear how much is enough—Chicago already devotes a bigger share of its total budget to the IG’s office than either of the nation’s two other largest cities.

New York City has a whopping $59 billion annual budget, which includes money for a court, jail, and hosptial system that here are the responsibilities of county government. Of that total, about $21 million, or 0.04 percent, is spent on the city's Department of Investigation, which is responsible for rooting out fraud and corruption. But the department is organized to cast a wider net than Chicago’s IG office—separate inspectors are assigned to scrutinize each of the city’s other major departments and agencies.

In contrast, Los Angeles, with a $7.1 million budget, doesn’t have a separate IG or investigative agency at all—those duties are divided up between the city controller and inspectors in some city departments.

Even if some form of Moore’s ordinance passes—which is a big if—it would only allocate money for fighting waste and inefficiency after the fact. Many aldermen believe the biggest problem in Chicago government is its deeply flawed budget process, in which the mayoral administration crafts and presents a budget that aldermen have a couple weeks to look over before deciding whether to vote for it. Most aren’t able to study more than a few portions of it, even if they’re willing. New York, on the other hand, has a $3.2 million-a-year Independent Budget Office that generates reports and analyses that council members can use come budget time.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have something like that so we could go through the budget line by line?” Moore said. “That would certainly be on my wish list.”

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