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After nearly two years, aldermen agree on who will run independent budget office

The nearly two-year political stalemate that has blocked the launch of the City Council’s long-awaited independent budget office is over — just in time to guide aldermen through Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis.

Ben Winick, vice president of policy at Innovation Illinois, is the consensus candidate to run the office and become the Council’s first-ever, $107,000-a-year financial analyst, under a compromise crafted by Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee.

Rival aldermen put aside their differences and settled on Winick after Austin’s first choice, former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th), withdrew her name from consideration for the coveted job.

Ald. Ameya Pawar had opposed Ald. Carrie Austin’s preferred candidate for the budget post. | File Photo

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), the prime mover behind the independent budget office and a member of the selection committee, had waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to block Shiller on grounds she is neither independent enough nor as qualified as other candidates.

Last month, Pawar publicly urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to break the stalemate that has stalled the independent budget office and another important City Council reform: empowering Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen.

That’s precisely what Emanuel did. Sources said the mayor’s office played a pivotal role in calling Winick to the attention of aldermen.

“We have tough decisions ahead of us — decisions that are gonna require us to look at all different aspects. How to do what we do and do it better and be smarter with the public’s resources, then deliver better services. . . . They said they were short of information,” Emanuel said.

“Now, they have a person with a financial background to assist them in answering questions. If this person can help them be better aldermen and smarter about what they need to do to help us in that process, it will be a good investment for the taxpayers.”

On its website, Innovation Illinois describes itself as a “non-partisan, research-based advocacy organization dedicated to shaping, promoting, and implementing progressive public policies that reflect real, world-tested best practices.”

The website describes Winick’s role as “establishing a progressive agenda to support the middle class and working families of Illinois, improve educational outcomes and opportunities for students, and change the way the state addresses issues concerning justice and human rights.”

His resume also includes stints as chief of staff and acting director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. As a state employee, Winick “focused on a wide range of policy and fiscal challenges, including the budget, pensions, education reform, health care reform, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and economic development.”

Winick will need all of those skills and more to help guide Chicago away from the financial cliff.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s May 8 decision to overturn state pension reforms placed Emanuel’s plan to reform two of four city employee pension funds in similar jeopardy.

That triggered a downward spiral that saw Moody’s Investors Service double-drop Chicago’s bond rating to junk status and do the same to the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Park District. Two other Wall Street rating agencies ordered lesser drops.

Unless the Illinois General Assembly lifts the hammer, the City Council will have to decide by December how to make a state-mandated, $550 million payment to shore up police and fire pension funds. All told, the city’s deficit is approaching $1 billion.

Earlier this week, a municipal finance expert warned that Chicago and Illinois have a “revenue problem” and have not taxed to the levels that other municipalities have. The “revenue problem” can only be solved with a modest property tax increase — and a whole lot more.

That’s the mess that Winick inherits.

Pawar, for one, believes he’s up to the task.

“He brings perspective from running a progressive think-tank and nearly a decade of experience in working with leaders from both parties on budgetary and public policy matters,” Pawar wrote in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“He’s well-respected on both sides of the aisle. Chairman Austin saw these qualifications and helped build consensus around him.”

Pawar took the high road when asked what makes Winick a better choice than Shiller.

“Ald. Shiller was a great public servant and a budget watchdog. She withdrew,” he wrote.

Emanuel was puzzled when a reporter asked why the City Council needs an independent budget office.

“Wait. This is after a year and a half of you guys wanting it and now, you want to ask why we did it?” the mayor asked out loud.

Then, Chicago’s first Jewish mayor told a joke that’s a High Holy Day favorite among rabbis.

“A Jewish kid comes home from college. His mother buys him a green sweater and a blue sweater. . . . Kid comes downstairs wearing the blue sweater. His mother looks at him and goes, `What’s wrong with the green sweater?’ ” the mayor said.

“It’s kind of like, `Heads, you win. Tails, I lose.’ “