The Menu Money Mess

The City’s Office of the Inspector General.(OIG) has released its audit of aldermanic menu money. OIG reports that the program is underfunded, does not follow the “best practices” recommended by the Government Financial Officers Association, and suffers management difficulties ranging from lack of communication between departments to the inability to develop a comprehensive citywide capital projects planning process.

Each ward’s menu money has remained fixed at $1.32M for the past ten years, while the costs of improvements (materials, labor) have increased. Projects are not prioritized by the City Department of Transportation (CDOT). Instead, each alderman decides which infrastructure improvements will be funded in a given ward—and which will not. Some City residents have a voice in how menu money is spent through participatory budgeting, but most do not. .

CDOT does not allocate funds on the basis of need. Put plainly, the City’s history of disinvestment in poorer wards and CDOT’s insistence on providing each alderman the same amount of menu money means that some areas of the City continue to deteriorate while others can spend on beautification.

In his April 19 letter forwarding the OIG report to the Mayor, aldermen, and other City officials, Inspector General Joseph M. Ferguson was blunt:

“OIG found that the administration of the Menu program does not align with best practices for infrastructure planning ….This audit identified significant concerns related to the City’s planning and management of residential infrastructure. For example, we determined that the allocation of $1.32 million per ward bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs of each ward.” [Emphasis added]

OIG recommends that infrastructure planning and repair be handled by CDOT, stating that “CDOT [should] fully inhabit its role in residential infrastructure planning by directly implementing a comprehensive, multi-year strategic capital plan for maintenance and improvement.” CDOT’s response?  “[T]he Department reasserted its general but analytically unsupported belief that current practice provides an “appropriate framework” for addressing core residential infrastructure needs.” [Emphasis added]

OIG also recommends that CDOT conduct a citywide analysis of residential infrastructure needs; and that the City allocate funding per ward based on that need.

The level of incompetence displayed by high-ranking City employees is staggering. Basic management practices are absent. Officials admit they don’t analyze needs or seek information from one another before creating budgets, and don’t measure what, if any, impact the allocated funding has. All the wards get the same amount of money, even if actual needs don’t justify it, because nobody has determined what each ward’s needs are.

Aldermen control infrastructure spending within the limits set by the level of funding the City can afford. The City pays high interest rates on its constant borrowing, leaving little money  available for capital improvement projects. For example, in  the book Chicago Is Not Broke budget expert Ralph Matire notes that, in 2016, 44% of the City budget was consumed by interest payments, while only 19% was allocated to infrastructure improvement.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) in its recent comments on the OIG report compared Chicago to other cities around the country.  In New York, the city’s DOT controls the process and the funding. In Los Angeles, a citywide database is used to track street conditions; resurfacing is determined by both need and cost. Houston and Philadelphia give responsibility for street improvements to their respective DOTs; streets are resurfaced based on need.

Some of the OIG more disturbing findings:

  • CDOT “does not perform comprehensive, long-term analysis to determine annual residential infrastructure needs…. “
  • Office of Management and Budget [OBM] “does not seek input from CDOT regarding estimated residential infrastructure need…”
  • Neither CDOT nor OBM has analyzed whether the menu money meets infrastructure needs.
  • CDOT does not prioritize projects, or insist that capital assets whose repair will increase in cost in future years be addressed first, but leaves decision-making to the aldermen
  • The fact that menu money spending is decided on an annual basis by individual aldermen prevents long-range, comprehensive, citywide infrastructure planning
  • Residential infrastructure needs were not fully met in any of the City’s fifty wards. (Pothole repair don’t count in terms of  infrastructure repair. Potholes are considered a “deficient piece” of a “whole component” ([the street), and do not replace the whole component when filled.).
  • In 2014, aldermen were allowed to spend menu money not only in the ward to which they were elected but also in areas added to their wards in the 2011 ward redistricting, even though the new ward boundaries would not take effect until 2015. {CDOT has accepted OIG’s recommendation that this practice be ended.]
  • Aldermen are permitted to spend menu money on non-infrastructure projects. [CDOT has said this practice will continue as long as rules and regulations governing funding sources are not broken.]
  • Nineteen aldermen failed to comply with CDOT deadlines for submitting menu money spending requests. [CDOT has agreed to enforce submission deadlines.]
  • The best-funded ward is the 46th, which covered 88.5% of its infrastructure needs from menu money, leaving a deficit of $218,563, while the worst-funded, the 34th ward, covered only 15.1% of its infrastructure needs, leaving a deficit of $9.5M. [Menu money does not reflect the size of the ward or the level of infrastructure repair that’s necessary. The 46th ward has only 165.6 street blocks and 80 alley blocks, compared to 888 street blocks and 677.6 alley blocks in the 34th.]
  • Installing a left-turn arrow cost $70,000 per intersection in 2014 (see pages 24-26 for CDOT cost breakdowns for repairs to streets, alleys, etc.)
  • OIG estimated the annualized costs for street and alley repairs over the life cycle of each type of repair. (See details of other repairs/replacements on page 30.)
    • What’s the annual cost of resurfacing a residential street? $4,950 per year for 20 years.
    • An alley?  $3,375 per year for 20 years.
    • Street lighting? $1,464 for 50 years.
    • Curb replacement?  $1,600 per year for 50 years.

Earlier this week I watched from my window as eight City workers planted a single sapling on a neighbor’s parkway. Seven men to dig the hole, stand the tree inside, and put the dirt back. The eighth man drove the forklift. I thought about this again over the past two days while reading the OIG report.

The private sector couldn’t operate this way. The very least a public employee should offer is competence. The very least an employee should expect is  a workplace that has a clearly-defined purpose and goals, and a planned, logical, and reasonable method of achieving those goals. How can a program be created to solve a problem that hasn’t been analyzed? How can a budget be prepared without the kind of basic information needed to establish an efficient and effective spending plan? How can departments working on the same problem not communicate with one another? sn’t anybody in charge?

No wonder so many people are voting with their feet.

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Let’s look at the findings specific to the 50th Ward.

To maintain the 50th Ward’s 383.2 residential street blocks and 304 residential alley blocks, OIG reports that $5,265,165 in menu money was spent from 2012-2015 on residential infrastructure improvements. It was allocated as follows:

  • 91.8%  – Streets
  •  5.91% – Street Lighting
  •  0.8%   – Sidewalks & Pedestrian-Related Projects
  •  1.3%  –  Alleys
  •   0.1% –  Traffic

From 2012-2015, no menu money was spent in the 50th on curbs and gutters, painting, cameras, bike lanes, the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, or any other CDOT or non-CDOT project.

In 2015, the cost of maintaining residential street and alley blocks was $4,856,947; menu money covered 34.6% of of that total and ADA-compliance funding another $360,000, leaving a deficit of $3,176,947.

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Residents Discuss “Chicago Is Not Broke”

Last night Editor Tom Tresser and Contributing Author Jonathan Peck addressed the questions raised by their book “Chicago Is Not Broke: Funding the City We Deserve.” An engaged and enthusiastic crowd of about 30 residents heard Tom summarize the book’s approach to identifying the City’s financial problems and offer the authors’ solutions.

Tom Tresser, Editor of “Chicago Is Not Broke,” addresses audience at Northtown Library.

The book is divided into three sections: “Money That is Stolen from Us,” which deals with the costs of corruption, toxic bank deals, and police abuse settlements; “Money That is Hidden from Us,” otherwise known as TIFs; and finally “Money That We Are Not Collecting,” including taxes on financial transactions made by bankers and traders, such as CBOE, as well as discussions of a progressive income tax and a public bank for Chicago.

 

Jonathan Peck helps audience members imagine the city of their dreams.

 

Jonathan Peck, community organizer, then engaged the audience by asking that it imagine the city as we would like it to be. The audience offered a wealth of dreams, such as great public education, affordable housing, and citizen participation in decision-making. He then offered suggestions on organizing around such topics, working together to build coalitions of family and friends, adding neighbors and other community members, until a good idea becomes a movement.

Peck calls this “jammin’,” the term that describes musicians getting together, with each playing his own tune while creating music together.

John Kane, WRCO Chair.

That’s what’s happening at the West Ridge Community Organization (WRCO), the successor to the West Rogers Park Community Organization (WRRCO), founded in 2005.

 

Its focus has expanded to include creation of a park advisory council for Warren Park, and it is working with other organizations and individuals to influence economic development on Western Avenue in addition to its many other activities. It continues to play a leading role in the LEARN Coalition and helped organize the petition drive that resulted in the new library in West Ridge. WRCO is also about to launch a membership drive and a new Web site.

WRCO co-sponsored last night’s book forum with People of West Ridge (POWR), which focuses on community research and organizing for progressive change in West Ridge.

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A strong community-focused organization like WRCO can make positive change a reality in our neighborhood. Activist democracy—residents engaged in the decisions that affect their daily lives—can become a way of life if enough of us are willing to work together to develop and implement workable solutions to neighborhood problems.

 

Peck discussed the African concept “Ubuntu,” which translates as “I am because you are.”  Archbishop Tutu of South Africa has been quoted as explaining it this way:
“We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people.’ It is not ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate,
I share.’”

Works for me.

 

 

 

 

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Is Chicago Broke? Find Out at the Northtown Library on April 27

The West Ridge Community Organization (WRCO) and People of West Ridge (POWR)are co-sponsoring a book discussion on Thursday, April 27, at the Northtown Library. Our guests will be the editor and authors of “Chicago Is Not Broke: A Guide to Funding the City We Deserve.”  While the City waits to learn whether the Mayor will raise taxes and/or fees or simply borrow the money to cover the $200M shortfall in the Chicago Public Schools’ budget, residents can explore other solutions that, if implemented, could result in a tax reduction. Yes, you heard that right.

Each chapter’s author(s) explores a single topic in depth, including TIFs, a public bank, a progressive income tax, the costs of corruption, and the impact of toxic bank deals that force the City to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on debt service payments before a single penny can be spent on City services.

Authors of the book include former alderman Dick Simpson, Hilary Denk, an attorney and a Director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, 2015 mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, former reporter and communications consultant Thomas J. Graedel, Chicago Teachers Union Staff Coordinator Jackson Pollock, and economics professor Ron Baiman. Editor Tom Tresser is well-known to Chicagoans as the man who first questioned the costs of staging the 2016 Olympics in Chicago and organized the “No Games Chicago” movement.

Books will be available for $12.

Please join us at the Northtown Library on Thursday, April 27, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. for a lively discussion. You’ll also have an opportunity volunteer to work on some initiatives for West Ridge improvement.