In a few months, the City Council will decide how to spend about $2.4 billion over the next five years, for projects that run the gamut from new streets to libraries.

If they follow the tradition of the last 20 years or so, they’ll hold a meeting or two and then dutifully support whatever the mayor tells them to–so long as each alderman gets at least one project for his ward. So it goes with the so-called capital-improvement program in Chicago: the administration divvies up the federal, state, and local pie, throwing a crumb or two to the aldermen. And there’s little planning and virtually no public scrutiny.

Until recently. After months of negotiating with the Daley administration, the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a coalition of community organizations, has convinced it to hold a series of neighborhood meetings throughout the city, offering residents a chance to tell officials how they think the money should be spent.

“We hope to bring some order to this process,” says Jackie Leavy, project coordinator of Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. “It’s very important because capital projects–like streets, sidewalks, libraries, airport runways–are the city’s investment in itself. Too often, decisions on how to spend this money were made without much planning or public input, by faceless bureaucrats in the mayor’s office. It’s time we bring these matters into the open.”

In the past, capital-improvement programs got little attention because few reporters or activists thought of them as an accessible single package–unlike the city’s annual budget, which is well scrutinized.

Instead of appearing once a year in a bound book, the capital-improvement budget is a five-year plan revised year by year; it’s much more fluid. The plan shows how the city proposes to spend money from a variety of state, federal, and local sources. As most insiders explain, it begins as a wish list, drawn up by the heads of the city’s 16 departments at the request of the mayor’s Office of Budget Management, the administration’s number crunchers.

“The mayor’s budget office is a big player in this,” says 19th Ward Alderman Michael Sheahan, chairman of the council’s capital-development committee and a candidate for Cook County sheriff. “The budget office will say, ‘We need vaulted sidewalks repaired, or a new sewer system, or new libraries.’ Then the council gets to vote on the final package.” Essentially the budget office, which is only supposed to coordinate matters, is setting policy.

The final council-approved plan–an unwieldy document with more than 1,700 items–is difficult for the public to obtain; it’s not available in libraries or ward offices. Mayor Harold Washington pledged to make the process more public, in part to reassure his supporters who wanted more money spent in the neighborhoods.

But the late mayor never completely made good on his promise. For most of his time in office he was under siege from politicians loyal to former alderman Edward Vrdolyak, and he had other, more pressing matters to attend to. Besides, the news he would have conveyed was not what his backers wanted to hear: he was not able to redistribute money from the Loop to the neighborhoods. Funds were already committed and many projects already under way.

In addition, Washington was under fierce pressure to show his loyalty to influential developers, who tended to have conventional ideas of how money should be spent. He was never able to muster much support from white Chicagoans, so his reelection was by no means guaranteed. He needed all the downtown ribbon-cutting ceremonies he could get to undercut the notion that he was some kind of irresponsible radical bent on redistributing city funds.

As a result, in order not to offend neighborhood activists, the Washington administration did not publicize where it spent capital-improvement funds. That task was left to a fellow named James Greer, then a political scientist at the University of Chicago. After studying capital-improvement expenditures from 1966 to 1986, he concluded that more than half the money was spent in the Loop and at O’Hare, with roughly a third going to various neighborhood-improvement projects.

His report, published in 1986, angered many Washington administration officials, who tried to downplay its significance by discrediting Greer’s methodology. Despite the criticism, Greer’s report helped stir up activists.

“The first real movement came at a retreat in 1987 called the Chicago Innovation Forum,” says Leavy. “We had all sorts of neighborhood groups, foundation people, and even city officials for basically two days of freewheeling discussion on the physical blight and economic dysfunction of local infrastructure.”

At that retreat, more than one activist complained that low viaducts and crumbling streets discouraged industries from moving to Chicago. Moreover, without effective coordination of city projects, the city was wasting many of the moneys it had.

“The city doesn’t do a good job of coordinating public-works projects,” says Leavy. “There was this one horror story about an intersection at 63rd and Wentworth on the south side. They had lowered the street so that trucks could get under the viaduct. And then a few months later, Streets and Sanitation repaved the street, which in effect raised it. And trucks couldn’t get under the viaduct anymore. They completely crossed each other out.”

After the retreat, activists and community organizations formed the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. And in 1988 they convinced acting mayor Eugene Sawyer to itemize income and expenditures for the 1988-92 capital-improvement program.

Sawyer’s report showed that the federal share of capital programs was dropping from 45 percent of expenditures in 1983 to 28 percent in 1992. The reason was that the money for many federally backed programs, such as the subway line to Midway Airport, had already been allocated.

The budget also showed that the city planned to spend roughly $300 million at O’Hare and Midway over the next four years, $40 million at Navy Pier, and $84 million on the North Loop. Only $320 million was to be spent on all neighborhood projects, including $88 million for residential street resurfacing, $22 million for block improvements, $53 million for new street construction, $13.9 million for alley construction, and $20.5 million for sidewalk repairs.

Sawyer also promised to sponsor “community workshops” to get public input on the capital-improvement program. But his promises did not soften activists’ disappointment over how little money was being spent on the neighborhoods.

“Navy Pier is targeted for millions of dollars in programs, even though no one is sure what they are going to use it for,” says Andrew Goldsmith, executive director of the Industrial Council of Northwest Chicago, a not-for-profit association of small manufacturers. “So many times things get done here not because they need to be done but because we have a political need to satisfy. Look at the new stadiums. It’s going to cost millions of dollars to prepare the infrastructure to build them. But we don’t ask ourselves: ‘Do we really need them?’ or ‘How can we spend our money for the best economic results?'”

With pressure mounting to spend more money in the neighborhoods, Sheahan agreed to hold capital-development-committee hearings in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“They asked me if I would sponsor some hearings, and I said sure,” says Sheahan. “Why not? Until then, there hadn’t been any citizen participation. I figured it was time we brought the public in, and it was time the council took a greater role in these matters.”

The only other time in recent memory that aldermen have had a major say in capital expenditures was in 1985, when Washington’s rivals were blocking passage of his multimillion-dollar street-repair program. To win approval, Washington went over the aldermen’s heads: he took his case to the voters. He also took reporters on bus tours of several neighborhoods–including white southwest- and northwest-side communities–where the streets were ravaged by potholes. The opposition aldermen were embarrassed into supporting the mayor’s program.

“Not only did [the aldermen] back the mayor, but they added to his original proposal,” says Leavy. “They all wanted additional streets repaved. They got a little taste of power. In the past, so many of these decisions were made by faceless bureaucrats in the mayor’s budget office. Now the aldermen were getting a say. And that’s the way it should be–to a degree. You can hold aldermen accountable for their actions. You can’t hold a bureaucrat accountable. You don’t even know who they are.”

It’s still doubtful that the aldermen will show much independence, now that Richard M. Daley is mayor and the council has reverted to being a rubber stamp. But the potential for independence is there.

“Sheahan has been very cooperative, and there is great strength in his committee,” says Leavy. “If we get people to come down to those hearings and exercise pressure, they could redistribute money. We could hold the administration accountable for how the money is spent.”

Daley has already indicated he’s amenable to some reforms. Leavy has said that, aside from the public hearings (which will run through February–for information, call 939-7198), she wants the city to publish a ward-by-ward breakdown of capital expenditures.

“That way you can see where the money is spent and eliminate duplication,” says Leavy. “You should have this information available at all the libraries or in the alderman’s office. We need to view this money as a tool to rebuild our city. And with federal government cutting back its share, there’s less of the money to go around. So we have to spend it as prudently as we can.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.