Aldermen to Pay More for Pork in Wards

May 2, 2011

Dan Mihalopolous, Chicago News Cooperative

In the final days of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s long tenure, his administration is raising the prices on some items in the so-called “aldermanic menu,” effectively reducing the ability of City Council members to deliver infrastructure improvements to their wards.

For years, Daley’s “Neighborhoods Alive” program has buttressed his popularity and helped keep aldermen in line with his agenda. Under the initiative, each alderman receives a pot of more than $1.3 million to dole out pork projects. For every upgrade that an alderman picks from the menu, the administration deducts a set amount from the council member’s allocation.

The costs charged against aldermanic “allowances” are set to rise this year for several popular menu items, including repaving streets and alleys, constructing new curbs and gutters, putting in new street lights and installing speed humps, according to documents obtained by the Chicago News Cooperative.

“This doesn’t give us much to work with,” Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) said. “If I needed 50 streets repaved, in the past I might have been lucky to get 10 done per year. This might decrease it to five or six streets.”

Aldermen received the news in a letter on April 18 from Daley’s transportation commissioner, Bobby Ware, and the city budget director, Eugene Munin.

“Due to increased labor and material costs, and the federal mandate to construct ramps in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, we will be forced to increase menu pricing in some areas,” Ware and Munin wrote in the letter.

They asked that aldermen submit a list of the projects they would request for their wards by May 31, although Daley will leave office and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is scheduled to be sworn in on May 16.

City spokesman Brian Steele noted that prices are rising for only nine of 25 menu items, and he described most of the increases as modest. But many council members are not happy.

“It will hurt the aldermen in that we can’t do as much,” Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward) said.

Despite annual budget deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Daley has continued to allocate $66 million a year for the aldermanic menu program. Every spring, council members have cherished the chance to tour their wards and decide where to direct city dollars for improvements.

Many aldermen protested in vain when the Daley administration hiked menu prices dramatically in 2005, the first such move in five years.

Until then, a block of new curbs and gutters resulted in a charge of $28,500. That figure rose to $40,000 in 2005, and by last year, the price was $59,500. Another increase this year will bring the cost to $62,500, city documents show.

Brookins said areas like his South Side ward are more deeply hurt by the price increases than geographically smaller wards that are more densely populated. Each ward receives the same amount — $1.32 million — but larger wards have more streets and alleys.

To explain increased charges for street and alley resurfacing, administration officials cited the cost of installing ADA-compliant ramps, although those requirements went into effect two decades ago.

“ADA ramp construction involves more precision than meets the eye,” said Steele, the city spokesman. “This is really kind of catching up to the cost of the work.”

Officials said the administration would foot the ADA-related costs for the first five streets and the first alley that each alderman wants to repave. But the charge against menu budgets will spike dramatically for resurfacing subsequent blocks.

“Demand always exceeds the supply when it comes to infrastructure improvements,” Steele said when asked about complaints from aldermen. “The menu program has been a great program to hit the worst streets.”