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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The Illinois Voter Project

Last week the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) unveiled its newest information weapon: The Illinois Voter Project.

Using information that has never before been available to the general public, ICPR has put together a report and free downloadable maps that detail the behavior of voters in Illinois since 2008. The information is available at ilcampaign.org.

Among the interesting findings is that in that time period only about 22% of registered voters in Illinois bothered to vote in primary elections.

The Project breaks down the data by age, gender, location, and other specific details, and also provides county-by-county information about unregistered voters.

Sebastian Ellison, Director of BallotReady, presented information on this organization’s free online voter guide to the upcoming primary.  Just type in your address to access information on all candidates whose names will appear on the ballot in your area.

I attended the ICPR / BallotReady presentations and have since reviewed the report and its maps as well as used the BallotReady service. I hope you’ll do the same. Both are invaluable to citizens serious about reforming our political system.

ICPR Forum: Addendum

Among the many things I learned at the ICPR Forum was the answer to a question that troubles many Chicagoans: why can’t police officers be more quickly disciplined or terminated when their actions warrant such consequences? The answer is simple: state law defers to the police union contract. Read the current contract and the disciplinary procedures it outlines as posted on the FOP Web site.

I mentioned the reform legislation that Gov. Rauner signed into law in August 2015, but neglected to include a link to it. The text of the “Police and Community Relations Improvement Act” can be found here.