Government involves residents

By Gregory Cappis

North Side community members are being granted the ability to choose how to spend more than $1 million a year.

Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) is allowing his constituents to discuss, plan and vote on how to spend his $1.3 million in “menu money.” Each of the city’s 50 aldermen is awarded $1.3 million in “menu money” every year to spend on infrastructure projects at the discretion of the politician. This money typically goes toward resurfacing roads, building parks and other small-scale projects that benefit city residents. In the Rogers Park neighborhood, Moore has given his residents the power to decide how the money will be budgeted and is encouraging other aldermen to follow suit.

“We’re trying to get other wards to be like us,” Moore said. “I am applying for funding from one of our local foundations to support expansion of this to some other wards.”

The concept of participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has spread to more than 1,000 municipalities worldwide, according to Maria Hadden, project coordinator for the Participatory Budgeting Project.

Hadden, who also lives in the 49th Ward, said it was after the alderman attended a workshop that they began working together to implement participatory budgeting in the ward three years ago.

“This was definitely Moore’s initiative,” Hadden said. “He brought it to the community.”

Moore began to host meetings in fall 2009 to plan the 2010 budget. The 2010 “menu money” was spent on a greater variety of projects than in years past, according

to Moore.

The voting process changed for this year’s budget because resurfacing the highly traveled streets in Rogers Park is a great priority to the community. Now residents first vote on the percentage of money spent on resurfacing, and then they vote on the other proposed projects.

At an Oct. 24 participatory budget meeting at the Loyola Park Fieldhouse, 1230 W. Greenleaf Ave., residents expressed the need to resurface many alleys and streets. Accommodations for cyclists and the disabled were also prominently discussed.

Participating residents can sign up to lead committees, such as the parks committee, to determine exactly how the money will be spent. Any resident of the 49th Ward who is at least 16 years old can vote on the final proposals in the spring, regardless of his or her citizenship.

Last year’s vote allocated approximately 60 percent of the budget to resurfacing streets. It also led to the construction of a dog park, a community garden and 13 murals painted on public property, according to Moore.

Running these meetings has not only increased the community’s involvement in government, but has also increased the public’s perception of Moore.

Sandy Goldman has been living in the Rogers Park neighborhood since 1958. He said he used to be critical of Moore but has now grown to like him.

“The alderman has been very good on hearing and acting,” Goldman said.

Goldman has been attending community meetings for more than 50 years, and said the budget meetings are changing the neighborhood for the better.

Communities in New York City are in the process of implementing participatory budgeting, according to Hadden. She said each of that city’s 50 districts would enact participatory budgeting with a $1 to $1.5 million budget.

If all goes according to plan, New York City residents will be able to reap the same benefits as those in Rogers Park. Community members benefit by being more educated on public affairs and become more invested in their neighborhood, Hadden said.

“It’s a great transparent process,” she said. “People don’t have to question where this money is going.”

Even though Rogers Park residents get to choose how the money will be spent, there are some limits. For instance, one community meeting attendee expressed the need for either an elevator or an escalator at the Morse Red Line stop. Projects like these are too costly and would exceed the entire budget of the “menu money,” according to Moore, who said this would have to be a project funded by the Chicago Transit Authority. The money also cannot be spent on services, such as after school activities. “Menu money” can only be spent on capital budget or what Moore calls “bricks and mortar.”

Although a great deal of the budget is spent on resurfacing, the community must

rely on more city, state and federal funding to undertake more extensive projects that maintain the community’s larger roads. The “menu money” focuses more on alleys and side streets that need to be repaved. It allows the people living there to point out the specific problems in the neighborhoods that need to be dealt with.

“That’s the genius of this process—it’s the people deciding on their own,” Moore said.