LICENSE APPEAL COMMISSION

Day 9 of the City Council Budget hearings kicked off with a quick, 20 minute hearing with the License Appeal Commission. With few questions asked and a small pool of aldermen present in the Chambers, Commission Chairman Dennis Michael Fleming gave a brief breakdown of cases heard over the past year, how fees are collected, and his annual salary.

Submitted written testimony.

Attendance: Chairman Carrie Austin (34), Vice Chairman Jason Ervin (28), Leslie Hairston (5), Patrick Daley Thompson (11), Raymond Lopez (15), Michael Zalewski (23), Ariel Reboyras (30), Scott Waguespack (32), Gilbert Villegas (36), Anthony Napolitano (41), James Cappleman (46) 

The Commission hears appeals from businesses and individuals seeking a review of decisions of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and the Local Liquor Control Commission. Fifty-two appeals were filed last year: 83% of those cases were applicant cases related to denied liquor licenses, the rest were disciplinary. The Commission has one full time position. Chairman Fleming said he works an average of 12 hours a week with an hourly rate of $125.

DEPARTMENT OF FAMILY AND SUPPORT SERVICES 

Questions about mental health programs for the City’s homeless population and suggestions on how DFSS could cut waste by changing how it allocates resources to delegate agencies took the brunt of the roughly two hour DFSS hearing with newly appointed Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler. Having only assumed the office 50 days ago–a point she made repeatedly–Butler had several members of the DFSS staff back her testimony with data and background when asked statistic-related questions or about specific programs DFSS oversees.   

Attendance: Chairman Carrie Austin (34), Vice Chairman Jason Ervin (28), Pat Dowell (3), Leslie Hairston (5), Gregory Mitchell (7), Michelle Harris (8), Anthony Beale (9), Patrick Daley Thompson (11), Raymond Lopez (15), David Moore (17), Matt O’Shea (19), Rick Munoz (22), Michael Zalewski (23), Michael Scott, Jr. (24), Walter Burnett (27), Chris Taliaferro (29), Ariel Reboyras (30), Milly Santiago (31), Scott Waguespack (32), Deb Mell (33), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35), Gilbert Villegas (36), Emma Mitts (37), Nick Sposato (38), Anthony Napolitano (41), Brendan Reilly (42), Michele Smith (43), John Arena (45) James Cappleman (46), Harry Osterman (48), Deb Silverstein (50). 

Submitted written testimony.

Several aldermen asked why there isn’t more coordination between DFSS and the Public Health Department when it comes to mental health programs geared towards the city’s homeless population. 

A frustrated Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30) pounded his fists on the desk to lament the lack of programming and suggested DFSS and the City’s Health Department pool their resources. “This will alleviate the problems we have in jails,” Reboyras explained. He recalled an incident “four or five years ago” where he had to personally help a homeless man in his ward find shelter because resources were scarce. He said he bought the man a bottle of vodka, shared a drink on the street because, as Ald. Reboyras said “ if you can’t help him, you might as well join him”, and eventually helped the man find shelter at the local YMCA. “These are little things that no one knows the alderman does.” 

According to the City’s last “point-in-time” count, there are approximately 6,700 individuals living on city streets or in city shelters;19.4% of those counted suffer from mental illness, 22.7% suffer from substance abuse. 

When Ald. Michele Smith (43) asked Butler to detail some of the main obstacles to find shelter for those who don’t suffer from either ailment, and if Single-Room Occupancy units might help mitigate those obstacles, Butler deferred the question to a member of her staff. Deputy Commissioner Alisa Rodriguez said, “to some extent,” saying affordability is more important.     

Butler said she is trying to collaborate with other city departments to make sure funding is spent efficiently. She said she has already had two meetings with Health Commissioner Julie Morita, adding that implementing new programs geared towards the City’s homeless population take time, because a relationship of “trust” between government agencies and the homeless take time. “They don’t have to go into shelter and they don’t have to take the services,” Butler explained. Unlike New York City, Chicago doesn’t have a court mandated right to shelter; all programs geared towards the City’s homeless population are on a voluntary basis.

As for ways DFSS could cut spending, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) pointed to a Chicago Jobs Council survey that found DFSS had spent $350,000 in fees associated with the single-ride Ventra cards delegate agencies hand out to to help low-income job seekers get to interviews or students traveling to school. Calling the fees paid to Ventra owner Cubic “inappropriate”, Ald. Waguespack asked that DFSS look into the issue. “I don’t think anyone realized this was going on except Ventra seeing their bottom line increase to our detriment.”

DFSS Managing Deputy David Wells told Waguespack the department could work better with CTA as well as CPS to see if there is a way to “alleviate” that issue.

Another vocal member of the Progressive Caucus, Ald. John Arena (45) said he didn’t understand why DFSS needs its own Human Resources team when the City already has a Department of Human Resources. He brought up a similar issue during the Department of Public Health hearing. Going line-by-line listing the titles for the HR division within DFSS, Ald. Arena said the $500,000 appropriation didn’t make sense. ”I’m seeing redundancies here and within the Department of Health and that’s troubling to me. We are asking for the largest property tax increase and we’re not looking at our budgets and departments to say, ‘Where can we reduce redundancy?’”

Reminding Ald. Arena that she is new to the job, Butler said she didn’t have an immediate answer for him, and will have a better update on how the department can be more efficient after she works with an independent consulting agency, The Civic Consulting Alliance.

Other figures revealed in testimony:

  • DFSS provides direct assistance to more than 300,000 Chicagoans annually through a citywide network of more than 300 community-based delegate agencies.

  • The 2016 DFSS allocation is $348 million, representing a 4.7% increase over the 2015 allocation

  • $170 million dollars will be invested in Head Start, Early Head Start and Child Care programs, including $15 million as part of the Early Head Start Child Care Partnership Grant

  • DFSS is rolling out a P-3 Grant Pilot Program for teen mothers and their children. The initiative will provide mothers with training, job opportunities, and the ability to finish their high school degrees.

  • 24,679 Chicago youth participated in the City’s employment initiative, One Summer Chicago (OSC), representing a 70% increase from 2011. DFSS wants to expand the program to 25,000 in 2016.

  • $61,252,572 will be allocated to homeless programs, expanding the Mayor’s Plan 2.0 to End Homelessness.

  • By the end of 2015, DFSS expects to open the City’s first domestic violence shelter in more than ten years. The two-story shelter will have 40 beds and the capacity to serve more than 100 families in 2016.

 

DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

A lengthy, and at times, contentious hearing with the Chicago Department of Transportation focused a significant amount of time on a budget item close to aldermen’s hearts: menu money and the rising cost of infrastructure improvements throughout the city. CDOT is asking for $576 million in this year’s budget: about $28 million more than last year. Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld fielded questions and praise for more than three hours Thursday.

Submitted written testimony.

Attendance: Chair: Carrie Austin (34), Joe Moreno (1), Pat Dowell (3), Leslie Hairston (5), Roderick Sawyer (6), Gregory Mitchell (7), Michelle Harris (8), Sue Sadlowski Garza (10), Patrick Daley Thompson (11), George Cardenas (12), Marty Quinn (13), Ed Burke (14), Raymond Lopez (15), David Moore (17), Matt O’Shea (19), Howard Brookins (21), Ricardo Munoz (22), Michael Scott Jr (24), Walter Burnett Jr. (27), Jason Ervin (28), Chris Taliaferro (29), Ariel Reboyras (30), Scott Waguespack (32), Deb Mell (33), Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35), Gilbert Villegas (36), Nicholas Sposato (38), Anthony Napolitano (41), Brendan Reilly (42), Tom Tunney (44), John Arena (45), James Cappleman (46), Ameya Pawar (47), Harry Osterman (48), Deb Silverstein (50) 

A small argument broke out between Ald. Brendan Reilly (42), and Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30) and Ald. Joe Moreno (1). Throughout budget hearings, Reilly has pressed commissioners to justify a budget increase over the previous year, and asked them to detail increased expenses and additional positions. He devoted his full 10 minutes of question time to asking about overtime pay, why aldermen should pay for Americans with Disabilities Act compliant ramps when it’s in CDOT’s budget, and new positions added.

“Where in the line item is funding for the Active Transportation Alliance?” Reilly asked. The Alliance advocates for greater access to, and use of, public transportation, biking, and walking. CDOT pays the Alliance a consulting fee using a portion of federal grants dedicated to safety, Scheinfeld said. 

“They’re an advocacy organization as much as they are an education organization,” Reilly pushed back, saying there should be a delineation. “There are some members of this Council who are targeted by these folks in their advocacy when a bike lane is resisted or changes are proposed… I don’t believe tax dollars should be used to subsidize political activity, period.”

“What does this have to do with CDOT?” Ald. Reboyras said off-mic, “They do wonderful work.” Reboyras serves on the Alliance Board of Directors. 

“Maybe you could speak during your time, Alderman Reboyras,” Reilly retorted.

Ald. Joe Moreno (1) also voiced his support for the Alliance to the whole chamber, off-mic.

“Great. Good for you, Joe,” Reilly replied.

Chairman Carrie Austin reprimanded the group, “No outbursts.”

By the end of the exchange, Reilly’s 10 minutes were up, and several aldermen went to Reboyras’ desk to speak with him. 

Ald. Tom Tunney (44) wrangled with Scheinfeld over quality control on CDOT projects involving private contractors, who Tunney says sometimes screw up and have to do the job twice. He pointed to bad concrete pours and pothole fills. “This comes up all the time. Who is watching these privates on behalf of the taxpayer, and making sure that you’re in there once, you’re doing the job right, and move on?” Tunney asked.

Public way inspectors and CDOT’s permit office have oversight, Scheinfeld says, and the department aims to “minimize disruption,” but she didn’t discuss how screw-ups were punished. Contractors have to re-do projects if it’s done incorrectly but only within the warranty period, she added. Tunney used the rest of his allotted time to drive the point home, and suggested they meet after the hearing to figure out how to fine contractors for mistakes outside the warranty period.   

The maligned, now revamped Chicago Infrastructure Trust 2.0 was also a talking point. In September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the ambitious “Chicago Smart Lighting Project”, a plan to overhaul the City’s lighting without using taxpayer money. Ald Marty Quinn (13) asked whether it could save aldermen menu money. Aldermen can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in menu money lighting a park or single block. The Trust has put out an RFI (Request for Information) on the project, due in November. Scheinfeld said even before the announcement, CDOT was getting unsolicited pitches from businesses.   

Scheinfeld says the department wants to find out what other revenue sources lighting upgrades could support. “Street lights are essentially real estate,” she said upgrading all the city’s light infrastructure would take a huge investment. 

Ald. Harry Osterman (48) took a shine to the idea of private, branded funding for lighting improvements. “I think that the lighting we’ve put in the last four years has probably done as much for crime reduction as a lot of other efforts, but it kills us with the menu,” he said, supporting allowing companies to pay to brand municipal assets to money for infrastructure updates. “If it’s Whole Foods or Ikea or GE Lighting and they have their sign on there, I don’t care, and I don’t think my constituents care… if we get the light there, I would be welcome to be a pilot.” 

More on how aldermen have spent menu money in our previous report.

Ald. George Cardenas (12) echoed Osterman’s sentiment, saying dealing with CDOT is “very emotional” and says he has 3 states of emotion: Negative Ned, Positive Polly, and Flip Flop Freddy. He says he often begins an infrastructure project thinking CDOT won’t make it happen, then believes it will, then can’t actually pick projects from the menu because they’re too expensive. “Shopping with CDOT is like shopping at a Bloomingdale’s, you like what you see, but you can’t afford it… I know inflation is not the problem. I know stagflation is not the problem, but our dollars are worth half of what they were 8 years ago.”

The $1.3 million allocation for each alderman “doesn’t buy anything anymore,” Cardenas said, adding he won’t finish lighting McKinley Park before he retires. Scheinfeld says CDOT always tries to help aldermen stretch their dollars as far as possible, sympathizes with cost hikes, and says rising menu prices are updated based on actual costs. 

Funding is also a problem for the expansion of Divvy, which Scheinfeld couldn’t give a conclusive timeline on for full expansion to the whole city. While aldermen are thrilled with the program’s growth over the past 2 years, others are clamoring for more. Ald. Matt O’Shea (19), whose ward is on the far South West Side, hasn’t seen Divvy reach his ward yet. Neighboring Ald. Anthony Beale (9) also asked about South Side expansion. Sheinfeld said they’re working on finding more federal funding, and want to reach every edge of the city. 

Other figures revealed in testimony:

  • $5 million total is allocated for the Shared Sidewalk program for the next couple years, Scheinfeld said. Residents chip in $4 per square foot for sidewalk repairs, seniors even less, and CDOT covers the rest. Ald. O’Shea (19) said signups in his ward topped out in early January last year.

  • The department expects to have 163 vacancies going into next year–fewer than listed in the budget.

  • CDOT will spend $3.1 million on bike lanes, totaling up 100 miles of the lanes across Chicago by the end of fall.

  • The budget office estimated CDOT had the highest absenteeism rate of the City’s big departments – 8.8%. Scheinfeld expects $2.5 million in savings from reduced absenteeism.

  • 40% of Chicagoans commute to work on bikes or by public transportation.