Determined to avoid a City Council rebellion when he’s trying to line up votes for a $588 million property tax hike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel opted to preserve a $66 million-a-year program that allows Chicago aldermen to choose from a menu of neighborhood improvements.
But that’s apparently not enough for some City Council members. They want to know why the Chicago Department of Transportation is behaving like a restaurant by raising the price of “menu” items like street, sidewalk and alley repairs.
With Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings Thursday, Ald. George Cardenas (12th) compared the annual exercise to shopping at Bloomingdale’s.
“You’re afraid of the accessories. If you want to add a little something, that’s going to cost more. When you’re done pricing it out, it’s a suit you can’t afford,” Cardenas said.
“A couple of streets, a couple of lighting projects and you’re done. I’m going to retire before I even finish lighting up McKinley Park. I’d like to fix that.”
Cardenas demanded to know why CDOT was raising its prices so high, the $1.32 million allotted annually to each of the 50 aldermen is gone in a flash.
“I know inflation is not the problem. But our dollars are worth half of what they were worth four or eight years ago,” Cardenas said.
“Is it labor costs? Is it raw materials? Is it outside contracting? What is this external cost that’s eating away at our dollars?”
Scheinfeld said she “sympathizes” with the complaint and said she’s well aware that $1.32 million a year does not “cover the needs in your ward annually.” She offered to help aldermen “spread your dollars as far as possible” and “get the biggest bang for your buck.”
Pressed to explain the price hikes, Scheinfeld said menu prices are “based on actual costs” and updated after “material purchases or other contracted services” are awarded.
“For example, our asphalt material contract is re-bid periodically. That’s a competitive bid. I believe those prices have gone up, similar to lighting installation,” she said.
“We try to hold the line as much as possible and we make sure we get competitive bids for those. But when those actual costs are raised, we need to reflect that in the menu program in terms of what those actual costs are. But I’m sympathetic. And that’s why we’re always looking for ways to stretch those dollars and be creative about how we address problems.”
Cardenas said there’s got to be a way to “grow our menu pot” through some of the other money CDOT gets from grants or “third-parties.”
“We should be having some allocation of that. . . . That menu money should be augmented, not the other way around, because $1.3 million just doesn’t buy anything anymore,” he said.
“You’ve had an increase in your budget. Obviously, there’s a reason for that. . . . Well, the same thing should happen for our menu money?”
Last month, Emanuel made it clear that the menu program that aldermen cherish wasn’t going anywhere — even as he searched high and low to cut costs before lowering the boom on Chicago taxpayers.
“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 then.
“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.”
Implied but not stated was the biggest reason the aldermanic menu program was 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 $588 million property tax increase and a first-ever garbage-collection fee of $9.50 a month. 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 then he was disappointed that Emanuel had once again chosen the political path of least resistance.
“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 then.
“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 shockwaves 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 money was carried over from year to year.