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City Council Independent Budget Office Gets Green Light

By Ted Cox | October 24, 2013 3:32pm
 An independent City Council budget office proposed by Aldermen Pat Dowell and Ameya Pawar is at last moving forward.
An independent City Council budget office proposed by Aldermen Pat Dowell and Ameya Pawar is at last moving forward.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — The long-proposed independent budget office for the City Council is going forward — as part of the 2014 budget process.

"It's a big deal," said Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), one of the original lead sponsors. "I think it is a leap forward."

The proposal to create an independent budget office on the order of the federal Congressional Budget Office was first suggested almost a year ago by Pawar and co-sponsors Aldermen Michele Smith (43rd) and Pat Dowell (3rd). But it was sidetracked to the Rules Committee, which has been called "where good legislation goes to die."

It was recently backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and escaped to be reassigned to the Finance Committee, but a news release from the Mayor's Press Office Thursday announced it would go forward as the City Council Office of Financial Analysis as part of the 2014 budget, with six positions to be funded at a total cost of $500,000.

Pawar immediately clarified that includes office costs, but still said it would almost immediately have an impact on council affairs.

"This is a tool for the City Council to make informed decisions," he said. "The more information we have and the more analysis we have, the better decisions we're going to make."

A committee including aldermen and outside financial experts, led by Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, will select a director who will then fill the rest of the positions.

The council agency will be charged with providing independent analysis of the annual city budget and audit, moves by outside bond-rating agencies and any proposed public-private partnerships.

"As a former congressman who relied heavily on the Congressional Budget Office, I know that that the analysis provided by this office will be essential as City Council considers the financial challenges and opportunities we face as a city," Emanuel said in a statement.

"As a result of this ordinance, City Council will have the independent, objective information that is critical to making fiscally responsible decisions," Smith added.

Dowell praised Austin for her "counsel and leadership" on the issue.

Chicago would be the fourth major city to adopt an independent legislative budget office, Pawar said, following New York City, Pittsburgh and San Diego. But those all adopted it in the face of a financial crisis.

"We're being proactive, given the challenges coming in 2015," he added.

Emanuel warned in his budget address this week that the city faces a $600 million "pension cliff" if the state General Assembly does not pass pension reform. In that case, he said, the 2015 budget process would have to begin early next year.

"We can't just wait for Springfield, because clearly they're not delivering," Pawar said.

Pawar said he expects at least the director of the Office of Financial Analysis to be in place by then, if not the full staff, adding, "We'll get on the process of putting everything in place the second it passes."

The 2014 budget has to be passed by the end of the year, although last year the process took about a month, passing the council in mid-November.