Chicago Receives a Grade of “A” for Spending Transparency

Work Remains to be Done on TIF and Privatization Transparency

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Chicago received a grade of “A” for spending transparency, according to a new report released today by Illinois PIRG. The report reviews Chicago’s progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

“It’s great that Chicago is a leader in spending transparency, and the City should take pride in its recent accomplishments towards that goal.  But in a city like Chicago, where half a billion dollars of property tax are spent on tax increment financing projects and millions more are wagered on privatization initiatives, we need to make sure that this transparency extends beyond just what we see in the city’s ordinary budget,” said Hailey Witt, Advocate for Illinois PIRG.

The report, “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” reviews and grades the nation’s thirty largest cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for quality-of-life services.  

The grade of “A” reflects that Chicago has done a good job of making information about how it spends ordinary budget dollars available, but it leaves out some of the areas in which there is the most potential for corruption .  The report does not examine projects outside of the ordinary budgetary process, like tax increment financing or privatization deals, and that’s where Chicago falls short.   

“The ability to see how government spends its funds is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility,” said WItt.  “But we can’t stop there.  Chicago needs to build on the success of its spending transparency and follow through with proposals to make tax increment financing and privatization deals more transparent.”

Illinois PIRG has made a series of recommendations for Chicago to follow in order to achieve more comprehensive transparency, including:

• Implementing the recommendations of the TIF Task Force from August of 2011, which will make more information about tax increment financing easily available to the public.

• Providing clear directions for how proceeds from asset privatization leases will be allocated, along with the development of tools to enable the public to track spending of proceeds from privatization over time.

• Publicly disclosing all documents relevant to a privatization proposal in a timely manner, including posting of such documents on a publicly accessible web site.

“City spending has a profound impact on residents’ lives through basic government functions such as policing, sanitation and public health.  Spending transparency can help Chicagoans hold their elected leaders accountable and ensure that tax dollars are well spent,” added Witt. “But here in Chicago, where half a billion dollars a year goes towards Tax Increment Financing projects and the city seems to be in a rush to privatize whatever public assets it can, we need to make sure that that level of transparency extends beyond just ordinary government expenditures.”

The new study extends Illinois PIRG’s annual reporting on state government transparency, which since 2010 has compared Illinois’ spending transparency to the other 49 states

The “Transparency in City Spending” report can be downloaded here.