Participatory Budgeting Give Residents Voice in Municipal Spending

5.9.13 | We’ve discussed participatory budgeting as an example of place governance, and last weekend in Chicago “PB” and “PG” climaxed as residents in the four wards (out of 50) that have adopted PB voted on lists of neighborhood infrastructure projects to be funded in 2013.

Not so coincidentally, the Participatory Budgeting Project hosted its 2nd Annual International Conference on Participatory Budgeting here at Loyola University, drawing activists and the interested from across the United States and Canada, and the globe. As of May 7, no summary or presentations from the conference had been put online. If they go up, I’ll note them here in future posts.

In the 49th Ward, which encompasses the Rogers Park neighborhood on Chicago’s far North Side (we’re just below Evanston, where Northwestern University is located and where your intrepid blogger grew up), Saturday’s vote culminated a week’s worth of early voting at “L” stations and other sites around the ward. We drew a total of 1,427 votes — an increase of about 100 over last year — and attracted the attention of several conference attendees who showed up en masse at the local school that hosted Voting Day.

(A disclosure note: I am a member of the “PB49” Leadership Committee, which helps steer the participatory budgeting process in the 49th Ward.)

A quick review of the PB process in Chicago: Residents are invited to community meetings in the fall where they learn about the “menu money” process — named for the “menu” of infrastructure-related projects each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen can fund in their wards from a dedicated stream of general obligation bonds — and offer ideas for how that money should be spent. They are also asked to volunteer to be “community representatives” who then spend the winter sifting through the ideas to determine which are eligible for menu money, which are feasible, which have already been done, etc.

Those volunteers have to determine a price for each project. Surviving viable proposals are previewed in a second series of community meetings and then put to a vote in the spring. The top vote-getting ideas are funded to $1 million (49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore holds approximately $300,000 as a reserve to cover cost estimate overruns or emergency needs).

We asked two questions:

  • What percentage of the $1 million should be taken off the top and set aside for street resurfacing and street lighting projects? Voters were asked to choose all (100 percent), nothing (0 percent) or somewhere in between (10, 20, 30 percent, etc.), and all these votes were averaged. Residents chose 62 percent, so $620,000 was set aside — enough to resurface nine blocks and provide two blocks’ worth of new streetlights.
  • Which four (of 11) projects, ranging from transportation to parks to arts and environment, should be funded with what’s left over? The five top vote-getters adding up to, or less than $380,000 won: Urgent sidewalk repairs, cobblestone replacement along a two-block stretch of a neighborhood street, a pedestrian safety engineering study of Sheridan Road (a major north-south artery), cherry trees and a new water fountain in a heavily used park, and shared bicycle lanes on Clark Street (another major north-south artery).

During the time that I was greeting voters as they came into the room, people were more or less evenly split between people who had voted in PB49 votes in the past and new voters. Some knew quite a bit about the process, others had seen a flyer or had heard about it from friends or family. All were appreciative of the opportunity to have a voice in how the “menu money” is spent.

As an application of place governance and an exercise in civic resilience, participatory budgeting is a no-brainer. It gives people a direct voice in the application of infrastructure spending in their neighborhood, on their streets, in their parks, and according to their priorities. It strengthens the sense that people do have a say in how they live. Can’t beat that.


Photo/ Samuel A. Love 

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