Chicago's far North Side residents brainstormed ways to spend $1 million of Ald. Joe Moore's (49th) “menu money” for infrastructure needs Tuesday night as part of the ward's first participatory budgeting neighborhood assembly for 2014.
Aldermen usually decide how to spend their discretionary funds for ward improvements like the resurfacing of roads and new street lights, but participatory budgeting lets the community get in on the decision-making process.
This is the fifth year Moore has allowed his constituents to vote for projects to be funded by the majority of his ward's menu money. Out of the $1.3 million in public infrastructure funds awarded to aldermen each year, 49th Ward residents have a say in how $1 million is spent. Moore sets aside the remaining $300,000 for emergency costs and projects that go over budget.
Some of the idea's floated at Tuesday's meeting included green alleys, improvements to roads riddled with potholes, more trees, solar panels at playgrounds and community gardens at local schools, to name a few.
Longtime 49th Ward resident Stephanie Willis, 42, said she wants to see murals painted on the blank walls of viaducts, which she said would help prevent gang graffiti while also allowing independent artists to show off their work.
"I notice when people put up murals, beautiful paintings, they’re less likely to be trashed or used as advertising for gangs," she said. "It's not only beautiful, it's [a] gang deterrent."
During the 2013 round of participatory budgeting, 49th Ward residents voted to spend a bulk of the menu money on street resurfacing, lighting and cobblestone restoration on a stretch of Glenwood Avenue. They also approved shared bike lanes on Clark Street from Howard Street to Albion Avenue as well as the planting of cherry blossom trees and a new water fountain at Touhy Park, among other projects.
Many of the 2013 improvements approved during a community vote in May are still in the implementation phase, however. At the meeting, Moore stressed that projects can take anywhere from one to three years to complete.
"You don’t vote for it and a month later there’s your brand new project," he told the more than 40 community members at the assembly. "It takes time, particularly in these tough economic times."
In 2009, Moore was the first elected official in Chicago, and the country, to implement ward-based participatory budgeting, which was developed in Brazil in 1989. Last year, Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th), John Arena (45th) and James Cappleman (46th) also adopted the process. Some 2,600 residents in the four Chicago wards turned out to vote last May for their area's projects.
In addition to Moore, Arena and Hairston are using participatory budgeting again this year, along with Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), the newest alderman to jump on board. Cappleman will not be doing a participatory budgeting process this year.
The Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is helping to facilitate the Participatory Budgeting (PB) Chicago project, which has been instrumental in expanding the process to other wards.
This year, UIC students will be helping with PB Chicago's outreach efforts in the four wards taking part in the process to get more residents involved, said Thea Crum with the Great Cities Institute.
"Folks who don’t normally participate in these processes generally take two to three conversations to really get involved," Crum said. "With the goals of community building, inclusion and equity, we're focused on making sure we're reaching out to folks who don’t normally participate."
Moore called participatory budgeting "democratic with a small d."
"It's not just me making the decisions, it's people that I represent making the decisions," the alderman said. "It's inclusive. Everyone is welcome to the table."
A few residents at the meeting said the community needs more after school programs to help curb youth violence as well as facade improvements for some run-down looking businesses. Moore stressed that menu money can only be used for public, infrastructure-related improvements, but other funding streams from the city's Special Service Area and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) programs could possibly be tapped for things like business facade upgrades.
"This [menu] money can't solve all our problems," the alderman stressed. "It could address some quality-of-life issues regarding infrastructure, but it can't solve all our problems."
There are five more neighborhood assemblies scheduled this month in the 49th Ward. The next one will be held tonight at the United Church of Rogers Park, 1545 W. Morse Ave., at 7 p.m.
Following the neighborhood assemblies, community representatives serving on committees involving arts, transportation and public spaces will gather during November through March to narrow down the list of the most promising projects. Those projects will then appear on the ballot for community members, aged 16 years and older, to vote on in April.
49th Ward resident Willis, who did not take part in the previous participatory budgeting cycles, called the process a "great idea."
"It shows that people’s ideas and their thoughts matter to the alderman or to some public officials," she said. "Especially now, with things going on with Congress, people feel like they don’t have a say. These are the types of things that we really, really need."