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Don't Let Aldermen Decide Which Streets To Repair Anymore, Watchdog Says

 36th Ward voters will decide what percentage of the budget should be used to resurface streets, and as many projects as possible will be funded with the remaining funds, up to $1 million.
36th Ward voters will decide what percentage of the budget should be used to resurface streets, and as many projects as possible will be funded with the remaining funds, up to $1 million.
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

CITY HALL — City Inspector General Joseph Ferguson took aim Thursday at one of the most beloved perks of Chicago aldermen — the $1.3 million each gets every year to spend as they see fit to fix up roads, sidewalks or other projects designed to spruce up their wards.

But the current system has created an unequal system where some wards aren't as well-funded as others, Ferguson found in a report released Thursday. The decision-making authority should be taken from aldermen and given to engineers at the Chicago Department of Transportation, Ferguson said.

"Nothing in this audit suggests that aldermen should be prevented from providing input on what happens in their ward or denied discretionary funds," Ferguson said. "However, I hope that when aldermen and their constituents read this audit they realize the Menu Program as it exists masks systemic inequity and underfunding of core infrastructure — streets, alleys, and lights — and places the responsibility for managing infrastructure not with the technical experts but with legislators.”

Transportation officials objected to Ferguson's finding and said they believe the $66 million menu program is appropriate.

Ferguson will meet in the coming weeks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel about another term in office.

Known as "menu money" for the list of permanent improvement projects that aldermen get to choose from, the project allows aldermen a pot of money to spend as they see fit — and curry favor with voters.

Ferguson found the city should have spent $228.8 million more in 2015 than it did to keep the city's residential infrastructure in good condition. In addition, the city's decision to fund road repairs at the discretion of aldermen makes it impossible for city officials to develop "a comprehensive long-term strategy to address residential infrastructure needs" and figure out a way to meet the need, according to the audit.

The best-funded ward got $9.3 million more than the worst funded ward, Ferguson said.

Because each ward gets the same amount, larger wards "receive a substantially lower percentage of menu funding required to maintain that infrastructure."

In 2015, the best-funded ward in the city was Ald. James Cappelman's 46th Ward, which received 88 percent of what the inspector general's audit calculated was its need.

The worst-funded ward in the city was Ald. Carrie Austin's 34th Ward, where it received only 15 percent of what it needed, according to the audit.

In addition to rejecting Ferguson's recommendation that aldermen no longer should be given authority over what infrastructure is repaired in their wards, the city's Transportation Department endorsed the use of participatory budgeting, which gives the final say for how the money is used to a vote of ward residents.

From 2012-15, aldermen spent $15.1 million from their discretionary funds on projects Ferguson's audit said were "unrelated to core residential infrastructure."

Those projects included $8.9 million on park projects and $2 million on school projects, according to the audit.

"If the city wants to provide aldermen a means for allocating funds to parks, playgrounds, community gardens, schools, cameras etc., it should consider defining an additional budget line for such projects rather than allowing the diversion of already scarce resources intended for core residential infrastructure," according to the audit.

Read the full report here:

CDOT Aldermanic Menu Program Audit by Heather Cherone on Scribd