Inspector general pushes Emanuel to strip street-paving from aldermen

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Chicago aldermen should no longer be allowed to make residential street paving decisions “based solely on complaints and superficial surveys,” Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Tuesday, urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to strip those projects from the aldermanic menu program.

In a follow-up audit, Ferguson argued that the current system of allowing aldermen to determine which residential streets get paved has resulted in “demonstrable inequities between wards and inefficient and ineffective use of valuable resources.”

“Chicago is in desperate need of a comprehensive approach to fundamental infrastructure — not one where residential street paving decisions are made by individual alderman based solely on complaints and superficial surveys, while the main thoroughfares are resurfaced based on high-tech data analyzed by transportation experts,” Ferguson wrote.

“This does not require the termination of the menu program or participatory budgeting [used by some aldermen to determine menu spending], but rather a re-orientation of the menu away from core infrastructure projects like street paving.”

In December, 2015, Ferguson concluded that the Chicago Department of Transportation was not managing street maintenance in a cost-effective manner that extended pavement life, as Federal Highway Administration pavement preservation program guidelines require.

Instead, CDOT was managing arterial and residential streets separately and was falling down on the job of collecting data on street conditions, measuring performance and engaging in preventive maintenance.

To extend the life of city streets in a way that is “most cost-effective” for Chicago taxpayers, Ferguson recommended that CDOT: develop “in-house expertise” about pavement preservation techniques; collect “reliable pavement condition data” on a “routine basis”; develop a “proactive maintenance strategy” and separate residential street resurfacing from the aldermanic menu program.

In the follow-up audit released Tuesday, Ferguson credited CDOT for taking steps to implement “three corrective actions” he recommended.

But, Ferguson noted that CDOT has slammed the door on the idea of stripping aldermen of their exclusive purview over residential street resurfacing.

North Side Ald. Joe Moore (49th) applauded Mayor Rahm Emanuel for standing his ground.

Moore argued that aldermen are “closest to the people” and many, himself included, use “participatory budgeting” to give local residents final say over how menu money gets spent.

“Residents of communities are in the best position to determine what’s needed for their neighborhood—not downtown bureaucrats,” Moore said Tuesday.

“At a time when people feel very distant from government and feel that no one listens to them, this would just exacerbate that problem. Once again, you’re turning decision-making power away from the people and to self-appointed experts at City Hall.”

South Side Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she, too, would be “totally against” ceding control over residential street resurfacing to CDOT engineers.

“I know there are streets in my ward that have been ignored for a long time. The menu money gives me an opportunity to address pressing priorities in my ward that have not been addressed by CDOT,” Dowell said.

It’s not the first time that Emanuel has slammed the door on one of Ferguson’s volatile recommendations about the $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program.

Last spring, the mayor said he was not about to strip aldermen of their control over infrastructure projects in their wards and hand it to professional engineers in the transportation department.

Following Ferguson’s recommendation would have been like declaring war on a City Council that has walked the tax plank repeatedly to solve Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis and whose support the mayor needed going forward.

Chicago aldermen cherish their control over the $1.32 million evenly distributed 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 to a grid system for garbage collection and street sweeping stripped aldermen of control over those services as well.

Emanuel could not afford to engage in a running battle with aldermen, particularly as he gears up for, what’s expected to be an uphill battle for a third term.

Ferguson had concluded that the menu program aldermen treasure was 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 then that decision-making authority should be stripped away from aldermen and handed to professional engineers in the city’s Department of Transportation.

At the time, Ferguson also took aim at the city’s longstanding practices of allocating menu money evenly 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.

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