Aldermen breathe new life into independent budget office

The $301,216-a-year office was created five years ago to empower aldermen and help avoid a repeat of the parking meter fiasco. Instead, it’s become a leaderless bust.

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Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, talks to Aldermen Greg Mitchell (7th) (center) and Roderick Sawyer (6th) (right) at the May 29 City Council meeting.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, talks to Aldermen Greg Mitchell (7th) (center) and Roderick Sawyer (6th) (right) at the May 29 City Council meeting.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen tried Wednesday to breathe new life into the independent budget office they created to empower them on fiscal issues.

Instead of allowing only the chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee to request a financial analysis on a proposal impacting the city budget, the ordinance approved by the Budget Committee would allow any alderman to make that request.

Reports would be provided to all 50 aldermen and posted on the internet. The office would also be required to produce activity reports quarterly instead of just annually.

The analyst’s job has been vacant since Ben Winnick retired in May.

Winnick’s replacement would be chosen not by a selection committee, but by Budget Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd), then confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the City Council, under the ordinance.

Although the analyst would serve a four-year term, a two-thirds vote also could remove that person without cause. A stipulation that the analyst could not have worked for the city for three years prior to being hired would be eliminated.

Dowell said she drafted the ordinance with help from Aldermen Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Ethics Committee Chairman Michele Smith (43rd) to “take the brick” off the office that started with high hopes, then got stuck in the mud.

“It was difficult for aldermen to go directly to the office to get their analyses requests met. ... We needed a way to remove the middlemen and allow the aldermen to go directly to the office to get the kind of analyses they needed,” Dowell said.

Reilly applauded the decision to, as he put it, “set COFA free.” The Better Government Association wanted aldermen to go further and establish a budget “floor” for the City Council’s Financial Analyst, similar to the one in place for the inspector general’s office.

“We all agree that, when COFA was first created, we envisioned a far more proactive and independent office than we’ve had to date,” Reilly said.

With an $838 million shortfall and mounting pension payments, Chicago aldermen need all the help they can get to help Mayor Lori Lightfoot solve the city’s budget crisis.

“It’ll be a challenge for this budget because the office is not at 100 percent. But we’re gonna make the best we can of it,” Dowell said.

The next step is to hire a director with “extensive finance experience,” a masters degree in finance or business and a track record managing and getting along with “people of various personalities and stripes,” Dowell said.

The chairman insisted she has no one in particular in mind for the job; behind the scenes, vanquished mayoral challenger Paul Vallas has lobbied for it.

Five years ago, the City Council voted to create the $301,216-a-year independent budget office to provide aldermen with expert advice on fiscal issues and avoid a repeat of the parking meter fiasco.

The reform was stuck in the mud for nearly two years in a stalemate over whether former Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) had the independence and policy expertise to lead the office.

Shiller ultimately withdrew her name, but the office was a bust, nevertheless.

It won’t be the first time the anemic office was beefed up.

Last year, Reilly won a year-long power struggle over that very same issue with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Reilly initially wanted the City Council’s hand-picked financial analyst to do a “fiscal impact statement” for all ordinances that propose to “add, eliminate, increase or decrease” the city’s annual city budget by $10 million, excluding grant funds.

Same for the “sale or lease of any city asset, including revenue streams from that asset” if the city’s take was greater than $10 million.

Emanuel balked and insisted on a $25 million threshold; the two sides settled on $15 million. At Reilly’s insistence, the mayor agreed to yet another provision mandating that the fiscal impact statement be presented to council members at least 72 hours before a vote on the proposal.

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