What does aldermanic “menu money” pay for?

In Chicago, part of the deal with being an alderman (we have 50) in a city where nearly all policy decisions go through the mayor’s office is that you get $1.3 million per year to spend on any infrastructure projects you want. I forget who said this, but it’s basically “walking around money” for elected officials who often depend on the perception that they’ve brought (literally) concrete benefits to their small districts to be successful.

Anyway, what exactly aldermen spend their combined $65 million on per year is pretty opaque. Though the city does publish a list of projects, it’s in a format that’s incredibly tedious to compile and analyze. Fortunately, though, Claudia Morell of The Daily Line took a major step towards doing that last year, going through five years’ worth of projects, and I used her data to do a bit of analysis at CTBA’s Budget Blog.

As always, click over the read the whole thing, but a big question I had—based on anecdotal observations of others—was whether lower-income wards spent a higher proportion of their menu money on services that “should” have been paid for from the main city budget. The idea being that poor wards get, say, fewer street resurfacings or light pole installations than wealthier wards, and so have to make up for that with menu money, while those wealthier wards get to spend theirs on frillier things.

I don’t have any open-and-shut evidence, but the map below—which you can interact with at CTBA’s website—does suggest that black South Side wards spend a higher proportion of their money between CDOT (roads) and Bureau of Electricity (streetlights) than North Side wards, on average. That’s not as conclusive as it might seem, since CDOT projects include everything from street resurfacing to more “optional” projects like speed bumps and bike lanes, and even murals. But I think there’s definitely something to look into here, if anyone has an army of research assistants to put the man-hours into reading the city’s ridiculous menu money PDFs.

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4 thoughts on “What does aldermanic “menu money” pay for?

  1. A next step would be to analyze the location of the projects in each ward. For example, if the Logan Square voters in my Ward 35 were more politically engaged, we would see a higher % of projects occurring in our community area than in Albany Park to the north.

    1. Excellent point, complicated by the fact that the level of gerrymandering in Chicago really mucks things up. I’m also a 35th warder, but in Avondale.

      Avondale is significantly smaller than Logan Square and has five, count ’em, FIVE wards. Under Rey Colon a huge chunk of menu money went into just cleaning the Belmont and Kedzie underpass, something that arguably should be IDOT’s responsibility (or DPH given it was functioning as a makeshift homeless shelter), so the neighborhood already deals with the traffic chaos and air pollution, and getting stuck with that tab really feels like double jeopardy.

  2. I think North and South Side are not the best way to split up the City for this exercise – East and West (or some other metric splitting out the CBD and some radial extension thereof) would seem more appropriate.

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