As the Chicago City Council continues to review the $6.3 billion budget Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed for 2012, there is likely to be little debate among aldermen about one item in the spending plan: the $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program.
For years, each of the city’s 50 alderman has received an annual allotment — about $1.32 million both this year and last year — to fix alleys and sidewalks, put in light fixtures, add speed humps and make other neighborhood improvements. Aldermen want to make sure the program remains intact.
“Before I vote on the budget, I want to have some assurance that it will continue,” Ald. Joe Moore (49th) recently told the Chicago Tribune “It’s important not to have generalities, but a specific assurance one way or the other.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she and other aldermen made clear their wish that the menu money not be cut, “and they heard us and that’s reflected in the budget proposal we’re looking at today,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Earlier this year, other aldermen expressed concern to the Chicago Sun-Times that the new mayor would reduce or eliminate menu money, even though some council members don’t spend their entire allotment.
That’s true in Austin.
Last year, all four of the aldermen who represent Austin had leftover menu money. It’s not clear why three of the council members — Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), former Ald. Ed Smith (28th) and former Ald. Sharon Denise Dixon (24th) — did not spend their entire allotments, as they didn’t return phone calls or could not be reached for comment.
Here’s a snapshot of how the money was spent last year (with more details at the end of this story):
- The 24th Ward had a balance of $52,500. There were no street or alley repairs — a little more than $1.2 million went to fixing street lighting throughout the ward.
- The 28th Ward had a $30,000 balance. Moore Park received $1 million, with street resurfacing taking the next largest chunk at $200,000-plus.
- In the 29th Ward, the balance was $162,584. Fixing alleys, curbs and streets took up the bulk of the menu money at a little more than $1 million.
- And in the 37th Ward, where the balance was just $5,586, street resurfacing and installation of speed humps accounted for more than $1.2 million.
Ald. Mitts, the only one of Austin’s four aldermen who answered questions about the menu money, said her constituents help decide each year how to spend the funds.
“I long ago established something called a participatory process with the community residents,” Mitts said. “While I as the elected official must make the final determination about what is needed in the ward, I constantly get ideas and requests from ward residents.”
This year, Mitts said, projects that will be funded with menu money include the resurfacing of North Avenue, from Laramie to Central avenues, and $1,900 for a new track and football field for La Follette Park, with The Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation covering much of the cost.
It’s not clear what if any input the other Austin aldermen solicited this year as they spend their current allotment. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), who were both elected this year didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.
In another ward, the decision-making is more directly made by residents.
Ald. Moore, whose North Side ward includes Rogers Park, Edgewater and West Ridge, has used participatory budgeting to decide how his menu money should be spent.
Luis Klein, who has served as Moore’s participatory budgeting counselor, said about 1,000 residents turned out to vote in the participatory budgeting election held this past May.
Some of the project’s the residents voted on included the installation of bike racks, a new playground at Touhy Park and improvements to several Metra underpasses.
Klein said participatory budgeting is not a new concept and can be tailored to any community.
“It was very easy to get people to see the big picture and to get that money needs to be equally distributed, and that we need to be responsible with the projects that we propose,” he said.
This process has value because the people who live in the neighborhood know best how to fix it, Klein said: “People have really good ideas about how to spend government money.”
Moore’s democratic budgeting style could be adopted citywide, says one former alderman.
“It can work in any ward, even in places like Austin,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“You may be able to turn out some citizens who’ve never participated because there’s something really at stake,” he said.
Simpson said getting a community involved creates unity about what’s important. But he said it’s crucial that residents care about the projects they’re tackling.
“Citizens will only participate when it matters,” Simpson said.
Klein said this kind of participation is important because aldermen could make decisions on their own but giving residents a vote holds the elected official more accountable.
“There’s nothing more transparent and accountable than the citizens making direct decisions on how to spend their tax dollars,” he said.
Elce Redmond, an organizer for the South Austin Coalition, said he agrees the best way to prevent corruption is by handing over more responsibility to the people.
“It’s the issue of power, and a lot of aldermen don’t want to concede that kind of power to local residents,” he said.
Redmond said he thinks participatory budgeting would be a definite improvement in Austin.
“I think it would be an excellent idea for the Austin area and any community primarily because it puts the ‘D’ back in the word democracy,” he said.
Here are more details about how menu money was spent last year in each of the four Austin wards:
24th Ward – $1,267,500 in street lighting at these locations:
- South Harding Avenue – West 16th Street to West Odgen Avenue
- South Lawndale Avenue – West 16th Street to West Odgen Avenue
- South Marshall Boulevard – West 21st Street to West 21st Place
- South Springfield Avenue – West 14th Street to West 16th Street
- West Arthington Street – South Pulaski Road to South Keeler Avenue
- West Flournoy Street – South Lawndale Avenue to South Pulaski Road
- West Lexington Street – South Pulaski Road to South Karlov Avenue
- West Polk Street – South Kilpatrick Avenue to South Lavergne Avenue
- West Polk Street – South Lawndale Avenue to South Pulaski Road
- West Van Buren Street – South Keeler Avenue to South Kostner Avenue
28th Ward – $1 million for Moore Park
28th Ward – $284,960 in alley and street resurfacing, and sidewalks at these locations:
- North Lotus Avenue , North Pine Avenue, West Washington, West End Avenue
- South Karlov Avenue – West Adams Street to West Jackson Boulevard
- West Odgen Avenue – South Rockwell Street to South Washtenaw Avenue
- North Kenton Avenue – West Ohio Street to West Chicago Avenue
- North Kenton Avenue – West Lake Street to West Kinzie Street
- North Kilpatrick Avenue – West End Avenue to West Maypole Avenue
- West Carroll Avenue – North Kilbourn Avenue to North Kenton Avenue
- West Fillmore Street – South Sacramento Boulevard to South Albany Avenue
- West Fulton Street – North Kenton Avenue to North Kilpatrick Avenue
28th Ward – $5,040 in street lighting on North Kilpatrick Avenue and West Adams Boulevard
29th Ward – $480,213 for alley resurfacing, curb/gutter work and other transportation projects at these locations:
- South Mason Avenue, South Austin Avenue, West Fillmore Street, West Roosevelt Road
- South Monitor Avenue, South Mayfield Avenue, West Fillmore Street, West Roosevelt Road
- South Menard Avenue, South Monitor Avenue, West Fillmore Street, West Roosevelt Road
- North Menard Avenue, North Massasoit Avenue, West Augusta Avenue, West Thomas Street
- North Waller Avenue, North Massasoit Avenue, West Thomas Street, West Division Street
- North Monitor Avenue, North Mayfield Avenue, West Cortland Street, West Bloomingdale Avenue
- South Menard Avenue – West Railroad Avenue to West Arthington Street
- West Potomac Avenue – North Mayfield Avenue to Austin Boulevard
- West Potomac Avenue – North Mayfield Avenue to North Mason Avenue
- North Mango Avenue – North Avenue to West Wabansia Avenue
- North Mayfield Avenue – West Rice Street to West Chicago Avenue
- North Menard Avenue – West Chicago Avenue to West Superior Street
- North Parkside Avenue – West Potomac Avenue to West Division Street
- South Parkside Avenue – West Madison Street to West Adams Boulevard
29th Ward – $91,000 in street lighting for North Monitor Avenue from West Division Street to West Hirsch Street
29th Ward – $575,703 for street resurfacing at these locations:
- North Mayfield Avenue – West Lake Street to West Midway Park
- North Mayfield Avenue – West Midway Park to West Race Avenue
- North Mayfield Avenue – West Rice Street to West Iowa Street
- North Meade Avenue – West Wrightwood Avenue to West Schubert Avenue
- North Melvina Avenue – West Diversey Avenue to West George Street
- North Menard Avenue – West Huron Street to West Superior Street
- North Menard Avenue – West Erie Street to West Huron Street
- North Menard Avenue – West Ohio Street to West Erie Street
- South Mason Avenue – West Fillmore Street to West Roosevelt Road
- West Adams Boulevard – South Waller Avenue to South Austin Boulevard
- West Arthington Street – South Mason Avenue to South Austin Boulevard
- West Arthington Street – South Mayfield Avenue to South Mason Avenue
- West Arthington Street – South Menard Avenue to South Monitor Avenue
- West Arthington Street – South Monitor Avenue to South Mayfield Avenue
- West Midway Park – North Menard Avenue to North Mayfield Avenue
- West Midway Park – North Mayfield Avenue to North Austin Boulevard
- West Nelson Street – North Meade Avenue to North Melvina Avenue
- West Wellington Avenue – North McVicker Avenue to North Meade Avenue
- West Wellington Avenue – North Austin Avenue to North McVicker Avenue
29th Ward – $10,500 for street speed humps at these locations:
- North Meade Avenue – West George Street to West Nelson Street
- North Monitor Avenue – West Bloomingdale Avenue to Dead End
- South Mayfield Avenue – West Fillmore Street to West Fillmore Street
- South Menard Avenue – West Arthington Street to West Fillmore Street
37th Ward – $835,991 for street resurfacing at these locations:
- North Keystone Avenue – West Chicago Avenue to West Iowa Street
- North Lamon Avenue – West Kamerling Avenue to West Hirsch Street
- North Lamon Avenue – West Crystal Street to West Potomac Avenue
- North Lamon Avenue – West Division Street to West Crystal Street
- North Lockwood Avenue – West Potomac Avenue to West Hirsch Street
- North Lockwood Avenue – West Crystal Street to West Potomac Avenue
- North Lockwood Avenue – West Ferdinand Street to West Ohio Street
- North Long Avenue – West Potomac Avenue to West Hirsch Street
- North Long Avenue – West Le Moyne Street to West North Avenue
- North Long Avenue – West Division Street to West Potomac Avenue
- North Long Avenue – West Hirsch Street to West Le Moyne Avenue
- North Lorel Avenue – West Hirsch Street to West Le Moyne Avenue
- North Pine Avenue – West Huron Street to West Chicago Avenue
- West Concord Place – North Cicero Avenue to North Lamon Avenue
- West Haddon Avenue – North Kostner Avenue to North Kilbourn Avenue
- West Hirsch Street – North Cicero Avenue to North Lamon Avenue
- West Hirsch Street – North Karlov Avenue to North Keeler Avenue
- West Huron Street – North Pine Avenue to North Central Avenue
- West Huron Street – North Long Avenue to North Pine Avenue
- West Kamerling Avenue – North Lamon Avenue to North Lavergne Avenue
- West Ohio Street – North Lockwood Avenue to North Long Avenue
- West Potomac Avenue – North Karlov Avenue to North Keeler Avenue
- West Potomac Avenue – North Cicero Avenue to North Lamon Avenue
- West Walton Street – North Keeler Avenue to North Kildare Avenue
37th Ward – $15,750 for speed humps at these locations:
- North Lockwood Avenue – West Chicago Avenue to West Iowa Street
- West Bloomingdale Avenue – North Cicero Avenue to North Lamon Avenue
- West Haddon Avenue – North Long Avenue to North Pine Avenue
- West Haddon Avenue – North Keeler Avenue to North Kildare Avenue
- West Wabansia Avenue – North Cicero Avenue to North Lamon Avenue
37th Ward – $176,189 for street lighting at these locations:
- North Karlov Avenue – West Chicago Avenue to West Augusta Boulevard
- North Lotus Avenue – West North Avenue to West Wabansia Avenue
- West Rice Street – North Long Avenue to North Central Avenue
37th Ward – $286,404 for alley resurfacing and speed humps, sidewalks and other work at these locations:
- West Iowa Street , West Chicago Avenue, North Long Avenue, North Lorel Avenue
- North Major Avenue, North Mango Avenue, West Palmer Street, West Belden Avenue
- West Chicago Avenue, West Rice Street, North Lavergne Avenue, North Lamon Avenue
- North Keeler Avenue, North Karlov Avenue, West Hirsch Street, West Kimerling Avenue
- North Long Avenue, North Lorel Avenue, West Chicago Avenue, West Huron Street
- West Cortez Street, West Thomas Street, North Cicero Avenue, North Lamon Avenue
- 1000 North Cicero Avenue
- North Long Avenue, West Cortland Street, West Bloomingdale Avenue, North Lorel Avenue
- North Keeler Avenue – West Belden Avenue to West Cortez Street
- North Parkside Avenue – West Palmer Street to West Fullerton Avenue
- West Huron Street – North Pine Avenue to North Central Avenue
- West Palmer Street – North Central Avenue to North Parkside Avenue
- West Palmer Street – North Major Avenue to North Mango Avenue
No ward should have any unspent money. Look around your communities, there’s always something lacking. Who’s getting the contracts to do the work? Rarely do I see anyone who looks like me doing construction in our communities. Use common sense and vote for politicians who have demonstrated worthiness for re-election. Again, are you really surprised? The mayor should retract/rescind any and all unspent money, and penalize politicians for not addressing unsurfaced streets, unfilled potholes, poor lighting that leads to crime, abandoned properties, unsafe playgrounds, etc. WHERE’S THE ACCOUNTABILITY?
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