Another brick in the wall, part one

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On Wednesday Chicago aldermen banned themselves from hiring their relatives with money drawn from a $1.3 million-a-year special-expense account. If only they'd bring a bit more daylight to all the money they control—and for that matter the rest of the city's $6.1 billion budget.

The account in question is designated “for the employment of personnel as needed by the aldermen to perform secretarial, clerical, stenographic, research, investigations or other functions expressly related to the office of alderman”—in other words, for damn near anything they please. It’s budgeted a total of $1.3 million each year, or about $26,000 per alderman.

The sponsor of the ban, 38th Ward alderman Tom Allen, spoke the truth when he said it represents a modest step toward reforming city government. “When you build a pyramid, you have to build it brick by brick,” he told the Sun-Times.

Fair enough. But if he’s sincere about reform, he should keep pressing for more accountability in the budgeting process. As a next step, he could push for making detailed records of exactly who and what these taxpayer funds are spent on available to the public. And he shouldn’t limit the initiative to this one account.

The city’s annual budget provides the City Council with an array of money pots that can be tapped for all sorts of stuff. Each of the council's 16 committees has a budget, ranging from $2.1 million a year for the finance committee to $88,948 for the Committee on Parks and Recreation; committee chairs can spend the money on personnel, “contractual services,” “commodities and materials,” or “contingencies.” In addition, finance committee chairman Ed Burke controls another $107,072 account for “legal, technical, medical and professional services, appraisals, consultants, printers, court reporters, and other incidental contractual services.” The vice mayor—50th Ward alderman Bernard Stone—oversees a $114,232 fund for “contingent and other expenses.”

But the biggest of these kitties is the aldermanic expense allowance, which provides $73,280 annually to each alderman. As I’ve reported previously, the budget dictates that this money be used for “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance of an alderman’s official duties.” What this means is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Over the last several years aldermen have reached into their expense accounts to cover rent and office expenses—as well as pizza, bottled water, road trips, rubber stamps, gas-guzzling cars, and the gas itself.

More to the point, they’ve also used the money to hire additional staff—at least 48 people as of a few months ago. These staffers aren't listed on the regular city payroll, and at least a few of them are relatives of aldermen.

That said, the City Council’s total budget—including all of these accounts and its other expenses and staff—is about $20 million a year. That’s a fraction of the $6.1 billion city total, and it’s even more difficult for taxpayers to see how all that other money is spent.

The annual budgets available on the city’s Web site are merely projections of what the administration expects to raise and spend in the coming year. Sometime after the year is over, the Department of Finance posts a reckoning of how it actually went down. But it doesn’t show what exactly the money was spent on—which budget line included the costs of filling potholes or buying new guns for police officers, for example. Nor does it show which contractors got paid out of which places in the budget.

The city points to its online procurement database as evidence of its willingness to share, and it’s true that it provides some valuable information on contractors and the payments they’ve received. But this database doesn’t connect the information to the 558-page budget, and it doesn’t include hundreds of millions of dollars worth of city expenditures, including payments made out of the aldermanic kitties, uses of tax increment financing funds, or fees paid to private-sector firms that worked on lawsuits, bond deals, or privatization agreements.

In short, if Alderman Allen and his colleagues are truly interested in shedding light on the ways the city uses our money, they’ve got a lot of bricklaying to do.

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