City Council budget hearings a farce

October 28, 2012

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Chicago aldermen are expected to conclude budget hearings this week, but those lengthy hearings are in many ways a charade. The budget is put together by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget office and, despite hearings that can last hours and stretch over two weeks, aldermen ask very few questions about the budget itself.

Lawrence Msall is with the Civic Federation, a century-old nonpartisan government research group that reviews the city budget every year. He says instead of providing fiscal oversight, Chicago alderman act  like glorified 311 operators: spending their time doling out banal city services like garbage collection and fixing potholes.

“The residents of Chicago don’t want the quality of their services determined by who their alderman; is they have the right to assume they’re going to receive all the same high quality services regardless of where they’re located,” said Msall.

Msall says aldermen should use their staff budgets to hire people who can provide in-depth and independent analysis of the budget, but he says aldermen have a motive to stick to constituent services.  Filling potholes is much less politically risky than raising taxes and cutting budgets.

Msall says Chicago should cut the number of aldermen in half and use the savings to staff an independent budget office because, given the state of the city’s finances, it’s clear the aldermen haven’t done a great job providing the budget oversight that’s needed.