Three years ago, the City Council voted to create a $301,216-a-year independent budget office to provide aldermen with expert advice on mayoral spending, programs and privatization and guide the City Council through Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis.
The reform was stuck in the mud for nearly two years because of a stalemate over whether former Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) had the independence and policy expertise to lead the office as the first-ever, $110,112-a-year City Council financial analyst.
Now, that painstaking process must begin again.
After 18 months on the job, Chief Administrative Officer Ben Winick is calling it quits to return to state government.
“It was a really difficult decision for me. I was approached by Comptroller [Susana] Mendoza about coming to help her. … It was something I kind of struggled with, but decided that helping her out given the importance and the impact of what’s going on at the state level that it was the right opportunity for me,” said Winick, 32, who once served as acting state budget director under former Gov. Pat Quinn.
“I definitely think this office has an extremely important role to play in being a resource for the aldermen.”
Shiller said she has no plans to apply for the opening created by Winick’s departure.
Shiller said she thought the experience and expertise she gained pouring over city budgets during her 24 years as alderman gave her a unique perspective. But, the argument “didn’t seem to resonate” with an overwhelming majority of aldermen.
“They blew an opportunity. It’s not my problem” anymore, she said.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) was the prime mover behind the independent budget office. He was also a member of the selection committee that chose Winick after Shiller withdrew.
“I’m surprised that, after going through the process where we compromised on Ben that he would leave abruptly. … Ben’s got to do what’s best for him. That’s okay. That’s life. We’ve got to move forward” and find someone else, Pawar said Friday.
“There will be people who never wanted the office to begin with who will say, ‘Maybe we should just save the money.’… If you want to go through the political process of undoing a law which creates the nation’s fourth independent budget office for a City Council, then let’s have that conversation. But, what we should be doing is talking about the long-term benefits to taxpayers of having this office in place. Maybe we didn’t get it right the first time on the person. But, that doesn’t change the fact that the reform was the right thing to do.”
Pawar noted that Winick put out a thoughtful report before the City Council authorized a tax-increment-financing district to nail down $1.1 billion in federal funds to modernize the CTA’s Red Line before now former-President Barack Obama left office.
“It said that, in many ways, it’s a property tax increase and we should be thinking about the unintended consequences of the project. He said it was a good thing, but let’s think about the broader impact,” Pawar said.
Winick also weighed in before aldermen approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to slap a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the largest of four city employee pension funds.
“He said this probably isn’t the ideal situation in terms of raising the water rate. But, given where we are and given where the pension systems are headed, this is something we should do,” Pawar said.
“He also did say that we would need to raise revenue again in a few years. That this wouldn’t be enough.”
Both of those reports lead Pawar to believe the independent budget office is worth fighting for — again.
“The New York City independent budget office [stumbled] out of the gate. It’s now been in existence for 20 years. It’s now a leading resource. Things don’t just happen overnight. It takes time. I don’t give up on these things,” he said.
Last time around, Pawar waged a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to block Shiller because he believed other candidates interviewed were more qualified and independent.
Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) was equally determined to engineer the appointment of Shiller. She was furious about Pawar’s efforts to undermine Shiller’s candidacy and impugn her integrity by disclosing interview information that was supposed to remain confidential.
The stalemate ended and Winick was hired, only after Shiller withdrew.