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$66 million aldermanic menu program to survive Emanuel’s budget ax

Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed Wednesday he’s “north of $170 million” in his effort to cut waste and inefficiency from the City Hall bureaucracy before lowering the boom on Chicago taxpayers.

But there’s at least one, costly, but coveted program that the Civic Federation has been urging him to cut that is not on the mayor’s hit-list: the $66 million-a-year program that allows Chicago aldermen to choose from a menu of neighborhood improvements.

During a South Side news conference called to highlight the more than 150 miles of streets the Chicago Department of Transportation has paved in 2015, Emanuel made it clear that the aldermanic menu program so beloved it could touch off a City Council rebellion if the mayor tried to eliminate it, is not going anywhere.

“You call it menu money. I see this as aldermen meeting the needs of their community and residents . . . I like putting these people to work building up the quality and the life of our neighborhoods,” the mayor said, pointing to the city crews behind him.

“We set up a structure where there are some standards. . . . About 50 to 60 percent of an alderman’s menu resources has to go into road paving . . . Their investment in their neighborhoods is something we want to encourage, but in a responsible way,” he said. “The menu . . . was changed. In past years, basically you could do whatever you want with it. It [now] has to go into infrastructure to improve the quality of life and economic capability of all communities so they’re livable for our residents and businesses that actually rely on thriving neighborhoods.”

Implied but not stated is the biggest reason the aldermanic menu program is staying put.

If Emanuel dared to eliminate it or even reduce it, he would have a far more difficult time getting the 26 votes he needs to approve a $500 million property tax increase and a first-ever garbage collection fee. He can’t afford to waste his political capital.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall has been urging the mayor for years to get rid of the treasured program that allocates $1.32 million yearly to each of the city’s 50 wards to spend on infrastructure repairs of the local alderman’s choosing.

Msall said he’s disappointed that Emanuel has chosen to avoid the path of political resistance — again.

“We continue to believe the city would be better served by having a transparent, comprehensive capital improvement plan that would allow for the most needed and beneficial projects to be determined objectively rather than at the discretion of individual aldermen,” Msall said.

“The problem is, the city doesn’t have enough money to do all the projects it needs to do. And it should be prioritizing based on objective standards the taxpayers can understand — both from a standpoint of which projects are funded and which ones are not and why they’re not,” he said.

Four years ago, Budget Director Alex Holt sent shock waves 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 will 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 funds were carried over from year to year.

Aldermen reacted coolly to the mayor’s mandate. Some feared the changes would be the first step toward eliminating the program. Others wondered aloud how the mayor could prohibit menu money carryover from year to year when City Hall has been notoriously slow to complete the work.

One year later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that 13 aldermen had together left $4.7 million of their “menu” money on the table in 2012, including one alderman who failed to spend 75 percent of his neighborhood improvement allowance. That forced Emanuel to bend his own new rule prohibiting carryover.