In communities across the country, including some large cities, such cost overruns, delays and excessive borrowing are unlikely to escape notice. These governments can’t borrow money against future property taxes without voters’ approval.
The referendums can be costly and at times divisive. But they force officials to provide details of bond deals and how the money will be spent.
In Houston, officials determine the cost of each bond project — like building bikeways or libraries — and then present ballot questions. “If you tell (voters) what the money will be spent for … you don’t have a lot of opportunity to veer from what you sold the voters,” Houston City Controller Ronald Green said.
In Chicago, however, political leaders experience little or no blowback when projects funded with bonds fail to come in on time or on budget. Often, as with the 12th District station, the delays and cost overruns lead to more borrowing that the public never hears about.
The closest voters come to having a say is electing the mayor and the aldermen who approve the borrowing. Yet the City Council repeatedly has passed ordinances that give the mayor wide latitude to issue debt, including costly taxable bonds.
Aldermen get perks from the borrowing. Each year, they divvy up more than $60 million in bond proceeds for projects in their wards, with few strings attached. They get to decide which streets to pave, sidewalks to fix and streetlights to replace. Since 2000, this “menu money” has added up to $638 million, not including interest.
In some cases, the money has gone to curious purchases with little lasting value, including $14,000 worth of bags for dog waste and $116,000 for decorative trash cans, according to the database of bond expenditures analyzed by the Tribune.
With the city facing massive deficits in its 2012 budget, Emanuel looked for new ways to cut. Aldermen made it clear to the mayor that scaling back the menu program should not be an option.
“He could have had a war,” then-Alderman Richard Mell observed at the time.
The menu money survived. Emanuel later balanced the budget in part by laying off city workers, closing mental health clinics and consolidating police stations.
(Chicago Tribune reporter Alex Richards contributed to this report.)
©2013 Chicago Tribune
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