How would you improve the 49th Ward?
That is the literal $1 million question that Alderman Joe Moore is asking Rogers Park residents as the 49th Ward begins a new cycle of participatory budgeting, a unique process that allows all 49th Ward residents, regardless of citizenship status, to vote on which infrastructure projects should be funded for that year.
“This is meant to be designed by the community, not by me,” Moore told the small group of attendees at a neighborhood assembly on Nov. 11.
Every year, each aldermen receives a $1 million budget from the city of Chicago, known as “menu money,” to deal specifically with infrastructure issues such as repaving streets, repairing sidewalks and maintaining public property. Previously, Moore directed 81 percent of this money toward street resurfacing and lighting, according to public budgetary numbers from the 49th Ward.
“I just drove around and looked at what needed to be done,” said Moore at the neighborhood assembly. “I talked with my staff and people around the area, but ultimately it was my call.”
Since the 2009-2010 fiscal year, Moore has decided how to allocate these funds to the 49th Ward residents through participatory budgeting, the first political jurisdiction in the United States to do so. Within its first year, participatory budgeting dramatically shifted priorities in spending, with money being more equally distributed across projects such as repairing gutters, repairing alleyways and adding speed bumps.
“You might say shouldn’t others such as [Chicago Park District] or the CTA do that?” said Moore at the neighborhood assembly, referencing the allocation of funds. “Yeah, but do you want to get it done sooner with our public money?”
This process began in November with neighborhood assemblies held throughout the ward. The assemblies give an overview of participatory budget for the 49th Ward and on “menu item” budgeting. Attendees at these meetings brainstorm ideas and volunteer as community representatives who develop proposals, with help from the 49th Ward office, for spending the funds. Community representatives can be of any age.
These volunteers refine the ideas and later present them during neighborhood assemblies. The final election is expected to take place in April 2016. Following this, projects with the most votes from the community are allocated their proposed funds and are put forth by the alderman’s office to the city.
The status of ongoing projects is regularly updated on the 49th Ward website. Completed construction on proposals from previous years include a convenience shower at Loyola Park, the Dog Park at Pottawattomie Park, the CTA heating shelters and benches at the Jarvis, Morse and Loyola Stations.
Many Loyola students have their own ideas of how the money should be used. Sophomore biology and physics double major Tom Jorgensen said he would love to see more bike lanes and jogging paths along the beach.
“There’s a lot of places where I can’t take my board because the path peters out into sand,” said Jorgensen. “Maybe [add] some more lighting as well, because [the path] can get kind of sketchy sometimes.”
“Maybe [build] some stations where you can put your bags along the beach,” offered Georgia Mitrankos, a first-year international business major.
The program has included student input in the past. The 49th Ward Office has worked with high school youth committees in the past to develop proposals and do preliminary research. They have also expressed that there is no experience required to participate.
“This is my first involvement in anything political in my life,” said one of the participants at the meeting.
Three more participatory budget meetings are expected to be held through Nov. 21st.