They won’t give an exact number, but city officials have been admitting over the last few days that they’re already looking at a substantial budget shortfall—perhaps as high as $400 million, or 6 percent of the $6.3 billion budget.

Budgets are essentially guesstimates about what’s going to happen in the year ahead. Apparently last fall’s were off by quite a ways. 

Acts of God and the economy have lots to do with it—budget department spokeswoman Wendy Abrams says she can’t provide specific figures because they’re so fluid, but the unusually long, messy winter cost the city far more than it had expected, as have rising fuel costs. And the rotten economy—especially in the foundering construction and real estate sectors—has slowed the rate of money coming in.

There are a couple ways to look at this. On the one hand, city officials couldn’t have predicted how many inches of snow were going to fall last winter any more than they can control national economic forces. Then again, maybe their projections could have been more conservative. Chicago hadn’t gone through a full-on winter in a number of years, and sooner or later it was bound to happen. The housing market was in a free-fall well before the 2008 budget was drawn up.

Yet the Daley administration laid out a budget plan last fall that assumed a mild winter and a stabilizing economy. A few examples:

·        The city’s Bureau of Street Operations, the division responsible for street cleaning and snow removal, had a 2004 budget of $89 million, but it was cut to $73 million by this year. (Over the same period, the budget for the Bureau of Sanitation, which handles garbage and recycling, grew from $142 million to $163 million.)

·        The Department of Fleet Management, which provides the fuel for city vehicles, budgeted just a little more (a couple million) for gasoline and diesel though prices were already shooting higher.

·        The 2008 budget predicted the city would bring in the same amount in real estate transfer taxes—$210 million—as it did in 2007, despite the sinking housing market. (And the city overestimated these revenues last year too.)

·        Same deal with the sale of city-owned land, which rises and falls with the pace of development and real estate speculation: the city projected making $16 million this year even though it only brought in $12 million in 2007.

·        Mayor Daley announced a shortfall at this time last year too.

If the budget department was overly optimistic, it had allies in the City Council—40 aldermen voted for the revenue package (though just 29 for the portion of it raising property taxes), and 37 supported the spending plan.

Now the mayor is considering employee layoffs and unpaid furloughs, and aldermen have also been told to prepare for cuts in city services. There’s nothing remotely good about this for them. No one walks around singing songs of praise to their aldermen just because the trees are trimmed and streets are swept. But if people start noticing that little things aren’t being taken care of, they’ll bitch, and whoever’s sitting in the ward office will be held responsible for the decline of the neighborhood whether it’s actually happening or not.

So what is an embattled alderman to do? Thank God there’s a Republican in the White House to blame, at least for now.