Op-ed: Why Chicago needs a budget cop

May 30, 2013

The following opinion piece by Civic Federation President Laurence Msall was published by Crain's Chicago Business on May 30, 2013.

Wrapped around the recent Memorial Day weekend were some of the most important meetings of Chicago's City Council Finance Committee in recent years. For two days, committee members heard from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's financial team on their efforts to sweeten the bitter aftertaste left by the city's 75-year parking meter privatization contract. This short-sighted deal, approved by the City Council in 2008 after only two days of limited review, already has become a much greater financial burden than many expected.

Mr. Emanuel and his team deserve a great deal of credit for working to manage a contract that has become a political and financial encumbrance. Members of the City Council also deserve credit for using the resources at their disposal to review and vet the amended contract. Whether they intend to vote for or against the contract amendment, aldermen must recognize that either choice has financial implications for the future of the city.

Some council members, however, are rightly questioning whether they have adequate resources to give a thorough vetting to proposals with such far-reaching financial implications. The Civic Federation long has recommended an independent budget office to fill this void of financial expertise — similar to independent agencies in New York, San Diego and Pittsburgh. We are encouraged to see that aldermen Ameya Pawar, 47th, Pat Dowell, 3rd, and Michele Smith, 43rd, have sponsored a proposal to create an Office of Independent Budget Analysis responsible for vetting all financial legislation before the council. We strongly urge the council to adopt this common-sense proposal that would give aldermen access to the independent information and analysis they need to be effective stewards of taxpayer dollars.

Chicago has one of the largest city councils in the United States, and yet it lacks the ability to evaluate independently the city's budgetary and long-term fiscal conditions. Last year, Chicago's budget was more than 500 pages, encompassing 35 departments. Aldermen are heavily dependent on the mayor and the mayor's staff for budgetary information. With these limitations in place, it is far too easy for the City Council to act as a rubber stamp on complex budgetary proposals instead of the independent legislative branch it is intended to be.

With the potential privatization of Midway International Airport and projects funded by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust on the immediate horizon, City Council members will continue to have a great need for independent financial analysis. The Civic Federation applauds the aldermen who are reaching out for the resources they need to govern effectively. Their common-sense and long-overdue proposal for an independent budget office deserves a public hearing and full support from Mr. Emanuel and the City Council.

Laurence Msall is president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government research organization, in Chicago.