Friday, November 9, 2007

Talk is cheap. Accountability isn't.

Posted By on 11.09.07 at 06:20 PM

If you can't beat them, start complaining that you need more money and help.

After a couple weeks of tough talk, some independent-minded aldermen are now saying that while they'd love to to cut more spending from the city budget, they just haven't had the time to figure out where or how.

"One thing I'm very disappointed about is that there aren't enough resources available to aldermen to help do analysis," Seventh Ward alderman Sandi Jackson said this week, explaining why she was backing a plan to tax commercial property downtown rather than presenting ideas for spending reductions.

While a team of administration officials spends months coming up with their budget proposals, aldermen say they have days to look over hundreds of pages of budget documents before they begin two weeks of Q & A hearings with city department heads. About two weeks later, they're expected to cast an up-or-down vote on the whole package.

"It's a lot to read, review, compare to last year's notes," said Freddrenna Lyle, alderman of the Sixth Ward. "It takes a lot more than five days to do it."

Lyle said more aldermen participate in hearings than just a few years ago, when Mayor Daley's budgets would pass by 50-0 or 49-1 counts. But most aldermanic offices have only three full-time staffers, who--according to aldermen--are so busy fielding calls and working to fill requests that they don't have the time, let alone the expertise, to help with budget analysis. 

"I keep hearing people, including talking heads and some of my colleagues, waxing poetic, saying, 'Cut the waste,'" Lyle said. "But I haven't heard anyone come in and point out where the waste is."

This year the council's new Independent Caucus met with several experts who offered them advice on examining the budget proposals and questioning department commissioners. Still, 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore agreed with Jackson and Lyle that aldermen need more help. He's argued that the Inspector General's office should have more resources and responsibilities, including the power to analyze waste. Moore notes that the council doesn't have anything like the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent agency that has released audits on Department of Defense management, public employee retirement benefits, screening for terrorist watch lists, and employment rights for members of the military--and that's in the last couple of days.

The GAO has a budget of $484.7 million and 3,260 employees; plus, federal departments have their own inspector general offices. For 2008, Daley's $5.9 billion budget would allocate $5.6 million for the Inspector General's Office, which will have 66 employees.

A boost in the IG's office, or even a new, GAO-like city agency, would be a great investment, even in a tough budget year, Moore argued. "It would pay for itself immediately."

The GAO says every dollar it spends provides federal taxpayers more than $100 in savings and efficiencies.

But don't look for anything comparable in Chicago. "I'm not going to support creating another department," said Lyle, expressing the sentiment of most of the council, even though she--along with her colleagues--is about to sign off on creating a new department. The $2.7 million Office of Compliance will perform duties that were, and are, supposed to be performed by the Department of Human Resources and the IG's office.

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