Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Friday he is not about to strip aldermen of their cherished control over infrastructure projects in their wards and hand it to professional engineers in the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Following Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s recommendation would be like declaring war on a City Council that has walked the tax plank twice to solve Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis and whose support the mayor needs going forward.
Chicago aldermen cherish their control over the $1.32 million distributed annually to each ward to pay for a menu of street, alley, sidewalk and other infrastructure projects of the local alderman’s choosing.
It’s one of the few powers aldermen have left after the city hiring scandal put a lid on government patronage and Emanuel’s switch from a ward-by-ward system to a grid system for garbage collection and street sweeping stripped aldermen of control over those housekeeping services as well.
Emanuel cannot afford to engage in a running battle with aldermen, particularly as he decides whether or not to seek a third term as mayor.
“Everybody who’s never actually worked in government said, ‘Let’s get rid…of earmarks. And ever since you got rid of earmarks, Congress has become totally, 100 percent dysfunctional,” said Emanuel, who served as former President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff.
“If you sit around and walk around with a glass of white wine, you can say, ‘This is what the perfect world is.’ I want residents to give ideas to their alderman…I want residents input into neighborhood improvements. The worst thing you could do is cut off residents and have that be driven by downtown. Anybody who’s ever recommended it hasn’t been around [long enough to understand] how the process works from the ground up.”
The mayor noted that he has already made changes to the $84 million-a-year program and would not hesitate to make more.
To stretch precious capital dollars further, the mayor opted to present each alderman with a “recommended list” of projects the city considers “most urgent” in hopes that aldermen would choose to spend their $1.32 million-a-year allotment on those projects.
To prevent the same streets from being torn up repeatedly, the mayor gives aldermen a “comprehensive map of all planned projects” on the drawing board for their wards by the city Departments of Transportation and Water Management, public utilities and by other government agencies, including the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges, CTA and CHA.
The changes also required aldermen to program 80 percent of their “menu money” by June 30 of each year and spend the remaining 20 percent before Dec. 31 of each calendar year. In 2014, only 31 of the 50 aldermen met the deadline, the inspector general said.
Ferguson made his politically explosive recommendation in a wide-ranging audit this week that hit aldermen where they live.
The audit concluded that the program aldermen cherish is underfunded by $122.9 million a year, “bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs” of each ward and includes significant “funding disparities.”
In addition to taking decison-making authority away from aldermen, Ferguson took aim at the city’s longstanding practices of allocating $66 million of that menu money in even amounts of $1.32 million to each of the 50 wards “without consideration of specific needs.”
That resulted in a “$9.3 million disparity in funding between the best- and worst-funded wards” even though “no ward received adequate funding,” Ferguson said.
“The $1.32 million-per-ward bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs of each ward,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to aldermen.
“In addition to an overall funding gap, the allocation of menu funds resulted in significant ward-to-ward funding disparities. … These findings are deeply troubling and point to serious, systemic issues in the city’s residential infrastructure planning, which disproportionately affect certain areas of the city.”
Emboldened by Ferguson’s findings, Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) released a proposal to re-distribute menu money based on the number of miles of roads and alleys in each ward.
With 30.7 total miles, under Beale’s proposal, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) would come in last, with $373,373-a-year. Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), at the other end, would see her annual allotment nearly double — to $2.4 million to cover her 195.7 total miles.
Beale would be No. 2 on the list, with $2.1 million to cover 171.6 total miles.
Emanuel did not comment on that suggestion, which would endear him to certain aldermen who could see their menu money spike and infuriate others who stand to lose money.
In spite of the political bombshell he dropped, Ferguson is expected to be re-appointed to another four-year term after a face-to-face meeting in the coming days with the mayor with whom he once had a frosty relationship.