Inspector General Joe Ferguson on Thursday hit Chicago aldermen where they live — in the aldermanic menu program.
In a wide-ranging audit, Ferguson said 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.”
He argued that decision-making authority should be stripped away from aldermen and handed to professional engineers in the city’s Department of Transportation.
Ferguson also 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.”
The audit revealed that the $84 million set aside for Chicago’s aldermanic menu program in 2015 fell far short of the actual spending of $206.9 million — even after additional investments for water and sewer work were factored in.
Despite the funding gap, the audit concluded that, from 2012 through 2015, the city allowed aldermen to designate $15.1 million of their menu money for projects “unrelated to core residential infrastructure,” including “decorative garbage cans, flower baskets and artwork.”
That “undermines” the city’s ability to “keep the public way in a state of good repair,” Ferguson said.
During the year-long run-up to the 2015 aldermanic election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration also allowed aldermen to curry favor with their new voters by spending menu money on projects outside their old wards.
Finally, Ferguson faulted the city for failing to enforce its June 30 deadline for aldermen to program “at least 80 percent” of their menu money; that deadline is intended to help keep projects on schedule, but in 2014, only 31 of the 50 aldermen met it, he said.
All of Ferguson’s complaints have been made before — either by aldermen themselves or by the Civic Federation. The failure to spend menu money on time and on core items has also been documented over the years by the Chicago Sun-Times.
During the 2007 aldermanic campaign she subsequently lost, then-Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) angrily defended her decision to use more than $200,000 of her menu money — intended for street, alley and sidewalk improvements — on four bronze statues of musicians heralding the Chicago Blues District.
But the comprehensive nature of Ferguson’s audit is certain to hit home at a time when Chicago taxpayers have been hit with a $1.2 billion avalanche of tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions while bracing for more to stave off an early closing of Chicago Public Schools.
To remedy the many problems, Ferguson recommended that the decision-making power be stripped away from aldermen and handed to CDOT.
“Responsible management of taxpayers’ dollars requires that the city take a comprehensive, long-term, strategic approach to residential infrastructure planning. Chicago’s financial concerns make it all the more urgent that the city adhere to this fundamental principle of good governance,” Ferguson wrote.
“While aldermen and constituents should be encouraged to provide input, CDOT’s infrastructure professionals are best positioned to create long-term plans and make cost-effective decisions on where and how to allocate the city’s limited infrastructure resources.”
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.
“If you want to bring fairness to the program, that is the way to do it. That is the way to make sure that money is spent wisely,” Beale said. “You see more potholes and more streets that are torn up in certain areas because of the imbalance.”
But Beale strongly disagreed with the idea of taking away from aldermen one of the few powers they have left.
“I don’t want someone from downtown telling me what streets and sidewalks and which curbs and gutters need to be done in my ward. I know my ward moreso than somebody sitting behind a desk downtown,” he said.
Far North Side Ald. Joe Moore (49th) is No. 46 on Beale’s list, with $647,018 to cover 53.2 total miles.
Moore agreed with Ferguson that Chicago’s neighborhood infrastructure program is “woefully under-funded” and that the decision-making process “should be more transparent.”
But he strongly disagreed with the inspector general’s proposal to “hand over to unelected and unaccountable city bureaucrats” the all-important power to decide when, where and how to spend the city’s limited resources.
CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said the department is “always looking for opportunities to improve” its citywide capital spending program.
But, he made it clear that Emanuel has no intention of risking a political revolt by taking the power away from aldermen.
“While menu is not the only funding for neighborhood-infrastructure investments, it does allow for neighborhood directed spending by providing aldermen the ability to make certain capital funding decisions based on the needs of the community,” Claffey wrote in an emailed statement.
In addition to the $66 million divided among 50 aldermen, the menu program also allocates $6 million-a-year for design and $12 million annually for “subsidized ramps” under guidelines earmarked by the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA).
In 2011, Budget Director Alex Holt sent shockwaves through the City Council when she told aldermen during closed-door briefings that “no funding source” had yet been identified to bankroll the “aldermanic menu program” for the following year. At the time, Emanuel was grappling with a $1.2 billion structural deficit.
Emanuel subsequently chose reform over a political fight.
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 said aldermen would receive 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 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.
Before, they were free to make requests throughout the year, and undesignated money was carried over from year to year.