Rogers Park residents gathered for the final installation of the 49th ward Participatory Budgeting Project Expo last night and listened to proposed infrastructure projects for their community.
The meeting, which was entirely in Spanish, was geared specifically for Rogers Park’s Hispanic residents.
Project organizers said they hoped the Spanish-language meeting would boost civic engagement from the community’s Hispanic population.
“It’s been a challenge to get the Latino community to participate, and the idea was that if we provided them with a space where they could dialogue about the projects it would be easier for Spanish-speakers to participate,” said Jose Melendez, a volunteer mentor to the Participatory Budgeting Spanish Language Committee and member of the Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee.
In the four years of Participatory Budgeting in Moore’s ward, this is the first time a committee is organized to cater specifically to Latinos.
Last night saw less than 10 attendees, but the first two meetings had a combined attendance of more than 100 residents.
“It was difficult to go to English-language committee meetings and have to wait for translation,” said Melendez. “In the previous years, even when Spanish-speakers would attend the meetings, they would never come back because the translating was tedious."
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the first elected official in the U.S. to implement the program, earmarked participatory budgeting in his ward in 2009. The process allows residents to vote on the allocation of city funds for infrastructure upgrades in their community.
Residents last night saw project proposals for the disbursement of $1.3 million in discretionary capital funds.
“This involves people in a very meaningful way,” said Moore. “This is a process that gives real people the power to make real decisions.”
This year, three other local officias, Alds. James Cappleman (46th), John Arena (45th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) have joined Moore in his initiative to put the decision-making process in the hands of constituents.
Combined, the four aldermen have $4 million in “menu money” for projects such as repaving streets, updating parks and revamping the neighborhood with public art.
“It’s kind of counter-intuitive for an elected official to give up power and I think that attributes to some reluctance,” said Moore. “There is also natural concern about whether it will just be the usual suspects and meeting junkies who attend and control the decision making."
Moore said, quite the contrary to “meeting junkies” being the only attendees, he’s seen “people he’s never seen before.”
“Something about this process appeals to residents from across the board,” he said.
The 49th ward’s Participatory Budgeting Project has five committees responsible with drafting the proposed projects.
The Participatory Budgeting Arts and Innovation Committee is providing constituents the opportunity to vote on choices of $60,000 mosaic art installation for the Willye White Community Center, a $300,000 new playground at Kilmer Elementary School (a project that would depend on the Chicago Public Schools contributing $150,000), or a $200,000 cobblestone restoration plan for Glenwood Ave. between Lunt Ave. and Farwell Ave., where Rogers Park’s farmers market is located.
The Parks and Environment Committee has proposed a new water feature for Pottawatomie Park, a new children’s ride at Lazarus Playlot Park, or a $100,000 AstroTurf soccer field at Mary Margaret Langdon Park.
The Streets Committee is asking voters to decide how much of the $1.3 million in “menu money” should go to repaving streets. The committee is advocating for 80 percent; but last year, residents only approved allocating 53 percent of funds toward street restoration.
Early voting will take place from April 27 to May 4 throughout the ward at train stations and the alderman’s office. Residents will also be able to vote on May 4 at the Chicago Math and Science Academy, at 7212 N. Clark St., from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“It’s really good that residents have a voice and can ask elected officials how money will be spent in their neighborhood,” said Maria Valencia, 58, a resident of Rogers Park for more than 20 years. Translation services were provided by Cecilia Salinas, staff assistant for the Participatory Budgeting Project for Ald. Moore.
Valencia said yesterday’s meeting was the first time she attended a Participatory Budgeting meeting. She said she planned to vote for a large portion of the ward’s streets to be repaved because her area’s pavement is in poor condition.
“It’s important that the alderman doesn’t make all the decisions, and people can make some decisions for him,” she said.
Participatory budgeting has spread beyond Chicago to New York and California this year. Vallejo, California is hosting the first ever city-wide participatory budgeting initiative in the U.S. this year.
Valencia said she’d like to see the Participatory Budgeting Project spread to all of Chicago’s wards.
“Residents have, not only a voice, but a real power to make decisions on how a portion of their tax dollars are spent in this process,” said Moore.