Every year in Logan Square and across Chicago, roads grow ragged, streetlights go dim and sidewalks crumble into tripping hazards. And every year, aldermen get a pot of funds for upgrades and repairs. In the Logan-area 35th Ward, thanks to participatory budgeting, residents get to choose how that money gets spent.
Starting today, Nov. 5, 35th Ward dwellers can vote to tell Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa how to allocate 2019 funds for repairs, upgrades, beautifications and safety improvements in the neighborhood. All 35th Ward residents age 14 and above can vote, and polling runs through Friday, Nov. 16. (Find your ward and alderman here).
You can vote via email (find the ballot here), at the 35th Ward Alderman offices (2708 N. Sawyer Ave.) or at various satellite polling sites on certain days. (See end of article or here for more voting details.)
Participatory Budgeting Empowers Ward 35
The 35th is one of a handful of wards in the city to use participatory budgeting. The practice means residents nominate and vote on projects their alderman will address using the ward’s share of the Alderman’s Menu Program fund (aka, the Capital Improvement Program). That pot of city cash gives $1.3 million every year for each alderman to spend on things like street resurfacing, installing new lights in dark corridors, upgrading playgrounds and building traffic-safety islands.
In the 35th Ward, Rosa puts up $1 million of the ward’s $1.3 million for voting via participatory budgeting. (The remaining $300,000 stays in reserve for things like cost overruns and emergency projects that wouldn’t earn widespread votes, Rosa said. For example, resurfacing might call for the more-expensive concrete instead of asphalt, or flooding risk on a certain street might call for an immediate response, he said.)
Rosa, who first instituted participatory budgeting in the 35th three years ago, said the approach brings democracy to infrastructure projects.
“I think that one of the ways that we can ensure that we have a truly free society is by ensuring that all people regardless of their education, regardless of their race, their background, have the ability to have a meaningful say in the direction of our society and our economy and our government,” he said.
For that reason, he inaugurated participatory budgeting in Ward 35 for the 2015-16 cycle, after being elected in May 2015.
Doing so “gives me the opportunity to empower the community to really say, look, you don’t need someone … in city hall to tell you what’s best for your community,” Rosa said. “You don’t need a billionaire like [President] Donald Trump or [Illinois Gov.] Bruce Rauner telling you what’s best for you. You don’t need some big corporation or big developer telling you what’s best for your community.”
2018-19 Projects Up for Vote
This year’s ballot just went live this weekend. The 2018-19 vote first asks you to pick what percentage (0 to 100) of the $1 million should go to street resurfacing. Once you choose that, you get to weigh in on a number of specific project proposals that residents have nominated. Those include work on pedestrian and traffic safety, lighting, alleys and alley aprons, and various beautification efforts (like additional trash bins).
Voting on the 35th Ward’s current ballot follows the nomination of projects, which ran through Sept. 30. The ward also keeps a list of all projects nominated (but not chosen) in previous years. Submissions have to include pictures of the site, with statements on how the project will improve people’s lives and how long it’s been needed. A volunteer committee, with at least two representatives from each of the ward’s neighborhoods, then evaluates the worthiness of the nominations. That committee then compiles the ballot you now see.
Past Projects: Playgrounds, Safety and More
“What we’ve accomplished over the last several years is we’ve had the community come together and allocate money towards rebuilding a crumbling playground in the poorest area of our ward, which is Hermosa,” Rosa said. “We’ve had the community come together and support new lighting in Albany Park that creates a safe-passage corridor for people that are walking between two schools and a playground.”
And thanks to a participatory budgeting project from last year, Avondale-Logandale School students and families will tread a safer path to school, Rosa’s office announced in Nov. 2 newsletter. The just-completed $60,000 pedestrian refuge island at Kimball and Wellington came out of last year’s community vote for $258,000 for pedestrian and traffic safety.
“The pedestrian refuge island, a $60,000 publicly funded pedestrian safety measure, will ensure safe crossing for Avondale-Logandale School families and neighbors!” Rosa wrote in the newsletter.
Other past projects funded via participatory budgeting in the 35th Ward include left-turn arrows and a pedestrian countdown, a wheelchair ramp at the Logan Blue Line stop, and sidewalk and alley repairs in Logan Square and other neighborhoods.
Understanding Our Government and Neighbors
The localized democracy of participatory budgeting not only empowers residents, Rosa said—it also helps people better understand their government and their neighbors. Participatory budgeting demystifies government infrastructure funding, Rosa said. Committee members and voters get the chance to learn, for example, how street surfacing can get blocked when the city places a moratorium on a street due to planned repairs, e.g. to water utilities.
And participatory budgeting helps people in the economically diverse 35th Ward understand one another’s needs and relative advantages, Rosa said.
“People that live in areas with better infrastructure where they have historically received more money from the Aldermanic Menu Program, get to meet their neighbors and understand the necessity to support a project halfway across the ward,” he said. ” And I think that that’s a major point.”
Infrastructure Budgeting in Chicago
Nine of Chicago’s 50 wards have, now or recently, implemented participatory budgeting. That includes Logan-area 31st Ward, helmed by Alderman Milly Santiago. The 31st conducted participatory budgeting in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 cycles, selecting things like park improvements and street-light replacements. But Santiago’s office announced it would not be holding participatory budgeting this year.
Participatory Budgeting first came to Chicago in 2009. That year, the 49th Ward’s Alderman Joe Moore became the first U.S. elected official to use the practice.
Those voting in the 35th Ward’s participatory budgeting cycle this year should be aware of another challenge, Rosa said: stagnant funding. The Aldermanic Menu Program has doled out a flat $1.3 million per ward ever since Mayor Richard M. Daley created the program about 20 years ago.
“But the price [of repairs] goes up year after year after year,” Rosa said. “So, in effect, we’ve seen a drastic reduction in the amount of money that the city allocates towards things like street resurfacing. … So I think that’s something Chicagoans should understand.”
The Aldermanic Menu Program as a whole has come under criticism for failing to put infrastructure money where it’s really needed. That might inspire more residents to favor a more participatory approach.
Voting Sites and Times
35th Ward participatory budget voting runs from Nov. 5 to Nov. 16. (And don’t forget to vote in local and national elections Tuesday, Nov. 6!)
• Online: View the ballot here, then email [email protected] with your full name and address.
• 35th Ward Office (2708 N Sawyer), M-F, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
• Satellite Offices:
– Wednesday, Nov. 7, Hermosa Satellite Office (4353 W. Armitage Ave.), 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
– Wednesday, Nov. 7, ASPIRA Haugan School (3729 W. Leland Ave.), 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
– Thursday, Nov. 8, Henry School (4250 N. St. Louis Ave.), 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
– Thursday, Nov. 13, Nixon School (2121 N. Keeler Ave.), 7 a.m. – 10 a.m., 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.
– Wednesday, Nov. 14, Hermosa Satellite Office (4353 W. Armitage Ave.), 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
– Wednesday, Nov. 14, Avondale-Logandale School (3212 W. George St.), 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Featured photo: 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa works on a playground upgrade at Nixon Elementary. Photo: Zack Keltner