PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday December 11th, 2013, 10:51pm

Chicago City Council Approves Independent Budget Office; Elected School Board Referendum Gets Squeezed

Progress Illinois provides some highlights from Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

Chicago aldermen approved a long-proposed plan to set up an independent budget office tasked with analyzing financial matters under consideration by the city council.

Chicago is the fourth major U.S. city to adopt such an office, which was originally spearheaded in the council by Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and co-sponsors Alds. Michele Smith (43rd) and Pat Dowell (3rd).

The office, which will employ six staffers, is set to receive $485,000 in funding a year. Aldermen will see a $3,000 reduction in their annual individual funds for hourly or contractual employees to help pay for the new office, which was noted in the 2014 budget.

"The journey that this ordinance has taken shows that the path of reform is sometimes not straight and not easy, but through teamwork and listening to our colleagues, to negotiating with the mayor’s office, we have achieved a new milestone in Chicago politics," Smith said at a press conference with her Paul Douglas Alliance colleagues before the meeting.

"This ordinance makes Chicago one of a handful of cities who actually have an independent budget office ... this team of city council members, the Paul Douglas Alliance, as well as our many cosponsors have realized that it's time to get a little bit ahead of our problems and to look for new tools to help city council exercise its fiscal responsibilities," Smith continued.

Asked whether $485,000 would be enough for the office to do it's job, Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said, "It’s, quite frankly, never enough."

"We believe what we have now gets us a good start," he continued. "It gives us an efficient tool to give an independent analysis of the financial proposals that will be brought before us in the coming years."

Moore explained that the new office would allow council members to "truly act as a co-equal branch of government working in partnership with the mayor to move this city forward." He noted that the mayor and his staff have been “very cooperative” while working with the Paul Douglas Alliance on this issue over the past months.

The new office, which is separate from the executive branch, is tasked with providing council members with "objective and independent analysis" of the city's annual budget and audit, rating agency actions, proposed public-private partnership deals and other financial matters.

“The ordinance is not perfect, but anytime you have opinions ranging from the ordinance goes too far, to the ordinance doesn’t go far enough, you probably have a decent piece of legislation,” Dowell said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) has been at least one critic of the proposal, saying he would rather see the office funded on a "pay-as-you-go" manner, instead of having all alderman kick in $3,000 from their annual pot of money. Members of the Progressive Reform Caucus also said the scope of the office's duties should include financial analysis of all city contracts larger than $5 million. Others have said the office may help to politically cover aldermen who find it difficult to take votes on tough subjects.

“It’s my hope that for those that disagree with what we're putting forward today, and what’s going to a vote today, is that over time, this effort can earn their support as well," Pawar said before Wednesday's meeting. “It’s a major step forward for the city of Chicago."

Pawar stressed the importance of having the office, as the city faces number of difficult upcoming financial issues. For example, the city will have to make a $600 million contribution in 2015 to its underfunded police and firefighter pension funds, bringing the city's total pension obligation to $1 billion. 

According to the mayor's office, the new office of financial analysis will also have a nominating and oversight team, comprised of aldermen, outside experts and chaired by the Budget Committee chairman.

In a statement, Emanuel said he looks "forward to seeing the good work of this office."

"As a former congressman who relied heavily on the Congressional Budget Office, I know that the analysis provided by this office will be essential as [the] city council considers the financial challenges and opportunities we face as a city," he said.

Elected School Board Referendum?

By a 44-3 vote, council members approved three proposals for non-binding ballot referendums involving increased taxi rates, a ban on high capacity magazines with more than 15 rounds and concealed guns in establishments that serve any alcohol. Alds. Anthony Beale (9th) James Balcer (11th) and Edward Burke (14th) introduced the three measures last month, respectively.

The move is a blow to supporters of a citywide referendum involving an elected Chicago school board, because only up to three referendums can be on the ballot during the upcoming March primary. Alds. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and John Arena (45th) were the three 'no' votes Wednesday.

The introduction, and swift passage, of the three referendum proposals was a clear effort "by those that are in power to make sure that the people of this city of Chicago do not have a voice on whether or not this city should have an elected school board," Fioretti told Progress Illinois.

Back in September, Arena introduced the resolution for an citywide elected school board referendum, with the hope of putting the issue on the March ballot, but it's been bottled up in the Rules Committee. Arena and fellow Progressive Reform Caucus members tried to bring the measure out of the Rules Committee last month, but that attempt fizzled.

"We're the only district in the state that does not have an elected school board, and clearly people are afraid of releasing their corporate control over our school system and letting the people decide," Fioretti noted.

But Fioretti remained optimistic, adding that voters in at least "some precincts or some wards" may still have a shot at weighing in on the matter.

And the overall issue concerning an elected school board will likely "resurface throughout the course of this year," Fioretti said. Looking ahead, it will also be a hot mayoral-election topic, he added.

"I do think that we will see the elected school board either being on the ballot or coming to fruition through Springfield," he said. 


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