| by Orlando Ortiz

In politics, there is a simple equation: Money equals power. In Chicago, politicians have a lot of money.

Chicago aldermen enjoy great amounts of influence, power and perks because of their title and status. But that’s not all—aldermen also have access to huge pools of political and taxpayer money that they can use for many different purposes, mostly at their own discretion.

There are two different pots of money available to aldermen: Taxpayer-provided funds, and political donations.


Political Funds

Typically, candidates running for office—at any level of government—will create a political committee with the goal of raising and spending enough money to ensure a victory for themselves, and sometimes for their allies. These funds can be used to pay for any “campaign-related expense.” Some traditional examples include campaign literature, telephone banking and office rent. Other examples of campaign fund spending include baseball tickets, lavish dinners and events, or personal office decorative items.

How candidates are allowed to spend political funds depends on the office a candidate is seeking and what state and federal election code is applicable. In many elections, there are fundraising caps set for all candidates that stay in place until one candidate raises a set amount of money.

Chicago aldermen are required to follow the City’s ethics code when it comes to accepting political contributions. However, numerous examples of elected officials misusing and abusing these campaign funds like Alderman Sandi Jackson, Representative Aaron Schock and many others show they have not always abided by the rules.

Often known as “war chests,” campaign funds for aldermen vary widely. Some aldermen have as little as a few thousand dollars in their campaign funds, while some aldermen keep millions of dollars in campaign funds year round, which they use for many political or administrative (or personal) purposes.


Taxpayer-Provided Funds

There are also funds paid for with tax dollars that aldermen get access to when they become city elected officials.

 

Chicago Department of Transportation Menu Money

Known simply as “menu money,” the Chicago Department of Transportation allocates money from its budget for each alderman’s office. The term “menu money” refers to the Aldermanic “menu” budget, which has a list of infrastructure improvements that can be ordered. Examples include street lights, new curbs, cross walks, resurfacing streets and many other items.

Each alderman is allocated $1,320,000 a year to use on infrastructure projects within his or her ward. Each project paid for with menu money is supposed to be executed in consultation with the Department of Transportation.

If an alderman does not use all of his or her menu money each year, it is not allowed to roll over to the next year.

Recently, some aldermen have taken constituent opinion into consideration when determining what projects to fund with their menu money. This process allows the community to have direct impact on projects they collectively wish to see undertaken and funded by their ward’s menu money. This is a good and healthy shift from total aldermanic control of the menu funds that some aldermen are embracing, and a movement toward more transparency.

Menu money represents $66,000,000 in the annual City budget. 

 

Salary to Hire 3 Full-Time Employees

From 2011 to 2015, each Chicago alderman was given $176,480 to hire up to three employees for their aldermanic ward offices. The budget does not set the rate of pay for ward office positions, thereby leaving it up to the alderman to determine how much each employee receives.

In 2016, the allowance for each alderman to hire up to three staff members was increased to $181,774.40.

However, during the budget committee hearings for the 2017 budget, aldermen complained that they were not receiving enough money for their offices. Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) went on record recommending increasing the aldermanic staff budget by an additional $3 million dollars.

“I’m gonna make one more request—and this is something that’s been on my mind for some time—and I’m hoping that we can find a way to pay for this: I think all 50 of us can use one more staffer,” Sawyer said.

“Let’s just say if that’s a shade under $3 million in the budget, if we can find a way to make that happen, that would help us all a lot,” he said. “Just something to think about. We can all use one more person in our office.”

Aldermanic staff allowances represent $9,088,720 in the annual City budget.

 

Aldermanic Expense Allowance

Each year, aldermen are allocated $97,000 to spend on any “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance of an alderman’s official duties.” (MC 2-8-050)

The aldermanic expense allowance was increased in 2013, up from $73,280 a year previously.

The Chicago Department of Finance monitors how aldermen spend their expense accounts and has restrictions for what is allowed to be expensed and what is prohibited. Once the Department of Finance determines that an alderman’s submitted expense is allowable, the alderman or a designee completes a voucher and submits it to the comptroller’s office for payment, either in the form of refund to the aldermen, or direct payment to the vendor.

Aldermanic expense allowances account for $4,850,000 in the City budget.

 

City Council Committee Funds

If an alderman is the chair of one of the 16 City Council committees, he or she also receives and exercises authority over the budgets allocated to his or her respective committee.

The only difference between the expenditures of these funds and those of the aldermanic expense allowance is that the Department of Finance is not involved in the oversight and payment process.

Each committee chair exercises absolute control over their respective committee budget.

Chicago City Council Committee Funds with Chairman and 2016 Budget


Conclusion

Over the past few years, Chicago residents have faced tax and fee increases from property taxes, water taxes, 911 fees, plastic bag fees, a Netflix tax and sugary drink taxes, just to name a few. Any of these fees can range from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars a year.

It is critical for taxpayers to know and scrutinize how their elected officials are using the money that taxpayers provide them. Greater scrutiny leads to greater accountability and transparency, which hopefully makes government operate more efficiently. An extra-watchful eye on how politicians spend tax dollars is especially important in Chicago—a city known for corruption, fraud and waste.