Half of city aldermen don’t show up for Chicago budget hearings
Each year, the City Council holds hearings for every city department to justify their annual appropriation. These hearings are sparsely attended and rarely touch on spending. This year, more than half of Chicago aldermen skipped budget hearings.
Each fall, the Chicago City Council meets to plan the budget for the coming year – trouble is, half of the aldermen don’t bother showing up. That’s a major problem for a city struggling with billions of dollars in debt.
For two weeks each year, every city department takes its turn justifying its appropriation for the coming year. With an $8.2 billion budget containing a $136 million shortfall, aldermen should be more discerning in their attendance and questioning. Instead, this annual practice turns into a “love fest” with aldermen thanking and congratulating city employees on a job well done.
This laissez-faire attitude toward budgeting is indicative of how the city chooses to do business. The mayor provides the heavy lifting by making decisions in the annual budget. In return, he simply asks the City Council for its approval. By deferring to the mayor’s wishes, the City Council cedes power to the point of making Chicago a “strong mayor-weak council” governmental structure. It’s time for City Council to build on its work over the past two years and stand up to the mayor and his handpicked department heads.
Senior staff from the city’s 34 departments, including the budget director, chief financial officer and comptroller, prepare for their turn to speak and answer questions from inquisitive aldermen during budget hearings. These meetings vary greatly in length with some as short as five minutes, some more lengthy, stretching well into the afternoon. In past years, budget hearings occasionally stretched late into the evening, even as late as 9 p.m. Accordingly, aldermen come and go as they see fit. This results in lower attendance numbers. Reporters from The Daily Line attended each of the hearings and compiled daily attendance.
Traditionally, most aldermen attend the first day of hearings as the budget director, chief financial officer and comptroller provide an overview of the annual budget and city finances. This year, 45 aldermen were in attendance the first day. From there, numbers begin to decline. By the third day, only 11 aldermen were in attendance for the Fire Department. A paltry three aldermen were present for the Commission on Human Relations and the Department of Administrative Hearings, two departments that appeared three days apart.
Over the course of the 10 days of hearings, each department averaged under half of all aldermen present, or 24 aldermen. The first day with the budget director, chief financial officer and comptroller (45) and the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (38) heavily skew these numbers. It should be noted that many aldermen send staffers in their place to attend and track these budget hearings. However, one of the fundamental roles of an alderman is to properly vet the city budget. This includes being present to question each department on their requested allocation.
How to fix Chicago’s budgeting process
City Council needs to make changes to how it handles the budget hearing process. Similar to how the Cook County Board of Commissioners is considering changing its rules to limit congratulatory resolutions, the City Council needs to focus on the matter at hand. Budget hearings should focus specifically on questions or concerns regarding the 2017 budget. Aldermen are free to thank or congratulate employees outside of these hearings. Similarly, aldermen should be contacting each department on an ongoing basis regarding specific ward services.
These common sense changes must be enacted in the name of government efficiency. Not only would it cut into the length of the individual hearings, it would allow aldermen to pinpoint problems with budget allocations. Considering the city has had a budget shortfall every year for the last decade, it is crucial that credence is given to the budget process. Anything less is a failure of city government.