Marie C. Dillon, BGA policy director, appeared before the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations on Oct. 2 to support an ordinance that would strengthen the Council Office of Financial Analysis, or COFA.
Dillon urged aldermen to approve the changes and to increase funding for the office, including setting a guaranteed minimum budget. When fully staffed and utilized, COFA could save the city far more than the cost of running the office.
The ordinance advanced to a full City Council vote scheduled for Oct. 9.
Here is Dillon’s testimony:
Committee on Budget and Government Operations, Chicago City Council
Oct. 2, 2019
My name is Marie Dillon and I’m the director of policy for the Better Government Association here in Chicago.
I’m here to speak in support of the ordinance sponsored by Ald. Dowell, Ald. Reilly and Ald. Smith concerning the powers and duties of the Council Office of Financial Analysis, or COFA.
This office was created in 2013 to provide independent and professional guidance to help aldermen cast informed votes on matters involving taxpayer dollars. Yet here we are, more than five years later, and it still hasn’t achieved liftoff.
Although the chief analyst left his job in May, many aldermen learned about the vacancy, as I did, through a reporter at Crain’s Chicago Business, several weeks after the fact. By that time an office with a budgeted staff of four was down to a single employee — just as a new mayor and City Council prepare to deal with a deficit now estimated at $838 million.
Closing that gap is an emergency. But Chicago faces a long haul and many difficult choices beyond this year’s budget. Will the City Council be a partner in those decisions, or a bystander? It’s up to you. A fully empowered financial advisor can make the difference.
The changes proposed here would remove the obstacles that have prevented the office from doing its job fully. The top-heavy selection process that delayed the hiring of the first analyst for nearly two years would be gone. The gatekeeping setup that prevented individual aldermen from requesting guidance from the analyst, also gone.
The BGA is especially pleased to see a provision requiring the office to post all of its reports and statements on a public website. The people of Chicago have entrusted you with their tax dollars They deserve to know how you are spending them and why. They deserve to know that you are asking questions and getting answers from someone besides the mayor.
I urge you to approve these changes.
The BGA would also like to see a guaranteed minimum budget for COFA, to maximize its impact and protect its independence. In 2013, the mayor and aldermen discussed a starting budget of $500,000, but actual appropriations have been in the neighborhood of $300,000 per year.
Low expectations are self-fulfilling. We can do better.
The City Council should demand more from COFA, and insist on funding to keep pace with its expanding workload. This office has the potential to pay for itself many times over.