Leven: It's Time For the Council Office of Financial Analysis to Get Working

Agreement to expand the powers of the City Council's financial analyst is welcome. But, after almost five years, it’s time to see what this office can produce.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses Chicago City Council in December 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Chicago City Council passed an ordinance on May 25, 2018, expanding the scope of work covered by the Council Office of Financial Analysis, a move which BGA's Policy and Civic Engagement Team strongly supported. However, as explained below, there is more work to do in order to make the office as useful a resource to council and the public as its counterparts in other major cities.

Chicago’s City Council oversees nearly $9 billion in spending every year. The city’s 50 aldermen play a critical role in the fiscal and economic health of the city, which currently includes an unfunded debt liability soaring above $30 billion. Taxpayers rely on their local representatives to be informed and thoughtful leaders when it comes to spending their tax dollars. That is why a compromise agreement to expand the powers of the City Council's financial analyst is welcome, even one that isn't as powerful as it first was proposed. But, this is the last compromise aldermen should make. After almost five years, it’s time to see what this office can produce.

The Better Government Association applauded in 2013 when aldermen created the Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA), meant to support and broaden the financial knowledge of the City Council. Similar offices long had existed in other cities, including New York, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness and independence of Chicago’s office was stymied from the very start. It took nearly two years to hire someone to lead the office and, since then, it has produced a trickle of information, including a review of the City's annual budget process. That kind of work was the result of significant compromise from what Ald. Ameya Pawar, Ald. Pat Dowell and Ald. Michele Smith had originally proposed. It’s a compromise that was not proving useful to aldermen or Chicago residents.

The Chicago City Council finally is expected to approve an amendment that will significantly loosen the handcuffs on this office. The amendment requires that the office produce a fiscal impact statement for any legislation that changes that year’s approved budget and any sale or lease of city assets worth more than $15 million. It also includes a requirement that the office conduct long-term analysis. In addition, it will continue to review long-term debt transactions.

Regrettably, this progress required compromise yet again. An earlier ordinance would have required a review of most sales of city assets and any legislation with even the smallest impact on the city’s bottom line. Ald. Brendan Reilly, the chief sponsor of the effort to further empower financial analysis, said he believed the compromise covers the most important fiscal work. For instance, he told the Tribune, the financial office now can look at a tax on motorists who drive into downtown or an employee head tax on businesses.

The BGA’s Policy and Civic Engagement team agrees. The compromise represents important progress and Ald. Reilly and his team deserve credit for making sure this issue moved forward. But this is the last compromise the City Council should make. No more excuses either. Now it’s up to the COFA Director Ben Winick and each and every alderman to unlock the value of the office. One easy way to do that is by posting the office’s reports online, as requested by Ald. Brian Hopkins. That doesn’t even require a change in law. It just takes a willing office, a supportive subcommittee, and place to load some PDFs. If Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin and her colleagues believe in value of financial analysis, this should not be too much to ask.

Aldermen also should get in the habit of requesting reviews of any and all important proposals. Call up Winick and ask him if he is reviewing something. If he says he’s not, then go ahead and make a proactive request. The new amendment provides room for the office to do more, but Winick and supportive aldermen need to think creatively about how the office can best provide the greatest value. If that means the office should get more money -- it was appropriated about $300,000 for four positions 2018 -- Winick can and should make that case. Now is the time for him to prove what he can do and for council members to invest in him and his staff. No more compromises and no more excuses. We wish him the best and will be rooting for him and the office from the sidelines along with the many advocates who joined us in supporting a more fully empowered financial analyst for the City Council.