What does Chicago’s “menu money” get spent on?

Streetlights and transportation infrastructure are common uses of menu money. renee_mcgurk/Flickr

Every year, Chicago divvies up $65 million among its 50 aldermen — or about $1.3 million per ward — as “menu money,” which each alderman gets to spend however they choose. According to PB Chicago, at least nine wards use “participatory budgeting” to assign menu money to local projects, bringing together constituents to suggest, debate, and vote on a particular road resurfacing project, park rehabilitation, or mural they’d like to see completed.

But how do all of these decisions — made at a participatory budgeting hearing or in a ward office — add up? What’s the big picture on what Chicagoans are getting for this $65 million?

Shockingly (or not), the city doesn’t make it easy to find out. Each year, they publish a PDF of every project — for 2016, 218 pages of this:

But last year, Claudia Morell of The Daily Line trudged through five years of these reports to add up all spending by department — the Department of Transportation, Bureau of Electricity (streetlights), Parks, and so on — for each ward between 2010 and 2014. Afterwards, she wrote a post about what she found: The vast majority of menu money, 74 percent, went to road repair at CDOT; another 20 percent went to fix up streetlights at the Bureau of Electricity.

But we wanted to know: How does this spending vary by ward? So, using the data Morell generously provided to us, we did some analysis and made some charts.

The first simply shows, using categories similar to Morell’s, how each ward spent its money from 2010–14. You’ll notice that, while most spend a majority of their money on roads and lighting, there’s quite a bit of variation. To get a closer look, in the next chart, you can select any of the city’s 50 wards and get its spending breakdown.

Finally, one question we were interested in was whether there was any geographic differences in types of spending. For example, this WBEZ story from last week suggested that perhaps some South Side neighborhoods have fewer underpass murals because they spend their menu money fixing up more basic things, like sidewalks or road resurfacing, that are neglected by the city.

Unfortunately, the department breakdowns we have don’t allow us to answer that exact question — but they do show some interesting patterns. One way to get at how much wards spend on the most basic services is to add up spending on CDOT (mostly road resurfacing and repair) and the Bureau of Electricity (streetlight repair). If you map that, it looks like on the whole, the South Side (especially off the lakefront, and not the wealthier far Southwest Side) spends a higher proportion of its menu money on roads and lights than much of the North Side.

Conversely, spending on parks — the clearest recreational category — seems to be concentrated along the north lakefront, the far Southwest Side, and parts of the West and Northwest Side.

This analysis is just a point of departure — there’s a lot more to investigate here. For example, many wards — perhaps especially on the West Side — encompass both relatively wealthy and relatively poor areas, and a closer look might examine whether projects are equally funded across the ward. One might also look at specific projects within the categories we’ve used here — do certain wards focus their CDOT money on resurfacing, while others do more sidewalks and bike lanes?

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