Streamlining government and eliminating duplicative services are top priorities for the Better Government Association. Today, streamlining government made front-page news in Chicago. To help frame the issue, we are re-posting our December 2010 analysis of the size of the City Council.

Should the size of Chicago’s City Council be significantly reduced?

That’s a question being raised with increasing frequency during the Chicago mayoral race as candidates wrestle with new proposals to slash city spending and streamline government operations. What follows is a Better Government Association analysis, along with a historical perspective, of this important and timely issue.

History of the Size of City Council

Chicago has not always had 50 wards. From 1901 to the 1920s, the council had 70 aldermen representing 35 wards, with two aldermen per ward. The two aldermen served alternating terms, with one of them up for re-election each year. Since 1920, aldermen have been chosen in elections with a run-off when no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the first round. In 1923 the City was divided into 50 wards, instead of 35, and each of those got their own alderman. Since 1935 Aldermen have served four-year terms.

Size of the City Council

Chicago has one of the country’s largest city councils. According to the US Census Bureau, Chicago’s population reached 2.8 million in 2009. The City is broken down into 50 districts, or wards, each with its own alderman to represent it in City Council. That gives each alderman roughly 57,000 constituents to represent. In contrast, New York City has 51 City Council members, and each of those represent over 164,000 constituents. Los Angeles City Council members are only 15 in number, representing over 250,000 constituents each. A look at the 10 most populous cities in the country reveals a similar finding—each have a higher number than Chicago of constituents represented by each city council seat.


The Cost of the City Council

According to the 2011 budget released by City Hall, the City Council budget for next year will be $24.5 million. Without knowing how other cities calculate their City Hall budgets, it’s hard to make a comparison. In addition to the $110,000 salary Aldermen receive, they get $176,484 a year to pay for three employees. They also have a $73,280 expense account, which, according to Title 2 of the Municipal Code of Chicago, they are free to use in ways ranging from travel costs to the “payment of miscellaneous, ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance of an alderman’s official duties.” That’s approximately $350,000 taken up by operating costs for each aldermanic office. This does not include the amount spent on pensions and other benefits. To see how your Alderman spent his or her expense account, take a look at this Chicago Tribune app. Just enter your address.

Savings from Cuts to the Council

If Chicago reduced the city council’s size in half, from 50 to 25, there would be savings for the city. The city would save $2.7 million in alderman salaries on top of another $4.4 million that would be saved by eliminating the salaries of the three staffers per alderman. Nonetheless, a reduction in the number of wards would not necessarily lead to the elimination of all ward staff because each ward office would have to double the number of constituents it serves. But there can certainly be some reduction in duplicative roles when Aldermen staffs are combined.

Streamlining government by eradicating wasteful and inefficient levels of government, and getting rid of redundant or unnecessary positions within the bureaucracy, is the most compelling argument for reducing the size of the city council. For example, on top of the savings from the elimination of aldermanic and staff salaries, combining wards would lead to a change in the streets and sanitation budget. Currently, a ward superintendent who receives an average of $90,000 a year runs each ward.  They manage garbage collection, snow removal, and the blue cart recycling program within their wards, and only within their wards.  Even if it would make more sense for a garbage truck to continue its pick up down, say, a one way street, ward boundaries—not common sense or efficiency—dictate the route.

If the number of wards were cut in half, offices of Ward Superintendents could be combined, again with duplicative positions eliminated. In addition, garbage collection and snow removal procedures would be restructured, allowing the opportunity to have efficiency dictate truck routes instead of ward boundaries. These changes in operation could reduce the budget by well over $1 million. Fewer numbers of elected officials could also mean that elections cost less. According to the City, expenses for elections are shifted from the Cook County to Chicago beginning next year. That will add $5.8 million to the Board of Elections budget, making it $18.8 million for 2011.

With only 25 open slots instead of 50, there would be fewer candidates, fewer petition challenges, and fewer taxpayer dollars spent in the election. While reducing the size of the City Council won’t solve Chicago’s financial problems, it may be a step in the right direction—a move toward eliminating unnecessary levels of government that cost money but don’t provide a tangible public service. At the very least, reducing the size of the Chicago City Council is an important topic that should be discussed seriously during this mayoral campaign. Do you have concerns about the size of Chicago’s City Council? Contact the BGA at 312.427.8330.

Research for this report by Samuel Cuomo, BGA Policy & Government Affairs Department.