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Democracy Solutions Project: voting on how tax money is spent

Jun 01, 2023

Some Chicagoans get to vote on how tax money is spent in their wards. Could Chicago do this citywide?

So-called participatory budgeting, in which residents vote on spending projects in their wards, started in the U.S. in Chicago, but its growth has stalled.

So-called participatory budgeting, in which residents vote on spending projects in their wards, started in the U.S. in Chicago, but its growth has stalled.

Along Chicago’s north lakefront near Rogers Park, there’s a couple strange looking exercise stations with gravity workout machines, pull-up bars, benches — they look like a mix of a playground and gym, and are used interchangeably as such.

On a recent sunny afternoon, a young man in workout clothes with a Gatorade bikes to the station to use a lateral machine that pulls him upward as he pulls down on a bar. At the other station, three kids and their grandmother are playing.

“I have absolutely no idea [what I’m doing], but according to this I’m working out my upper body and I’m stretching at the leg lift station,” said 12-year-old Britain Konczal, who smiled ear-to-ear as she swung back and forth on a workout machine.

It’s fun for the kids, said their grandmother, Regina Dorsette, and motivates her to be active.

New to the area, Doresette is surprised to learn how this exercise station got here — by community members pitching it, working with the city to design it, and then essentially campaigning for it in a public, ward-level election through an annual process called participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting, in which members of the public get a direct vote in how tax dollars are spent, has been around in Chicago for more than a decade, and made its U.S. debut here in the North Side’s 49th ward in 2009, led by then-Ald. Joe Moore.

The concept was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and is now used in cities across the world. In Chicago, residents vote on how to spend the majority of the $1.5 million in “menu money” City Council members are allotted for infrastructure projects each year — in the handful of wards that choose to use it. It’s also utilized in a handful of Chicago Public Schools as a form of civic education.

But despite its special ties to the city, participatory budgeting, or PB, has failed to launch on the scale advocates envision, lagging other U.S. cities such as New York and Boston that have implemented different versions of citywide programs. Now, proponents of participatory budgeting see an opportunity with Chicago’s newly elected mayor, who has vowed collaboration with residents, and whose transition report calls for Chicago to be “real pioneer” in participatory democracy.

“This will be the third mayoral administration that [we’ve] approached to talk about citywide PB,” said Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward, who before being elected, helped start the non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project that aimed to spread the concept to different areas of the city.

Hadden and others are driven by more than community parks and improvement projects. Those who work on participatory budgeting see it as a way to solve a pertinent threat to democracy: the disconnect and distrust between elected officials and those they represent.

“That’s what we’re seeing: like real disillusionment with the idea of democracy, if we only practice it through elections,” said Josh Lerner, executive director of the group People Powered, which aims to broaden the understanding of democracy beyond elections.

“If people see a big, money-driven electoral system as the only way we can have democracy, the natural response to that is to not want democracy. And that leads to authoritarianism.”

The problem: Citizens feel disconnected from government.

One possible solution: Participatory budgeting invites citizens into the budgeting process, giving them a direct say into how public dollars are spent in their communities. In the U.S., it began right here in Chicago, but hasn’t expanded as some envisioned.

Each year, the city of Chicago passes a massive, $16 billion dollar budget that is difficult for even the council members who vote on it to wrap their minds around. Take its size alone, for instance. Split into six different funds, the 2023 budget proposal was a 583-page, one-and-a-quarter-inch thick book in its physical form.

To try to engage more residents in the arduous budget process, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute to hold public input sessions with department leaders and residents. With some minor tweaks, Mayor Brandon Johnson is continuing that effort, having just wrapped up a series of roundtable discussions.

Thea Crum, an associate director at Great Cities, which facilitates the engagement process for the city, said there’s nothing quite like participatory budgeting, though, to help residents understand the nitty gritty details of what it takes to dole out public dollars.

“That’s what our research shows is that over and over again, people who participate talk about how they learn more about what their needs are in their community, that they meet more neighbors, they feel more positively about their aldermen, they learn more about how government works, they’re more comfortable contacting government agencies and officials,” said Crum, whose group also helps alderpersons facilitate ward-level participatory budgeting processes each year.

Asked to highlight a few projects that exemplify the power of participatory budgeting, Crum said she could go on for hours, but names a few: A group of parents pushing to make their playground accessible for kids with disabilities; close friends of a teen who died crossing train tracks to avoid a dirty, dimly lit underpass on his way home banding together to clean that underpass up; students pushing for a new water fountain in a lead-ridden school.

These ideas come from residents but city engineers and department employees help make them a reality — with everything from site visits to pricing out the right equipment with residents.

“They’re in the process of co-creation with their government. And then they get to see the results of that being built in their community. And so that is a direct way where the government is saying, ‘I heard you, and now I’m directly impacting and directly building what we have co-created together,’ ” Crum said.

These quiet public processes happen annually in ward offices throughout the city and are slated to take place in about 10 this year, including in the 49th, where on a recent weeknight a community engagement director, Jeff Gonzalez, welcomes several participants to a virtual information session.

His goal is to very directly define what can, and cannot, be funded through participatory budgeting, and in doing so he highlights a major constraint of how it functions in Chicago.

“The menu funds that we have can only be spent on capital projects, and we cannot use them for operating costs so as you see here, project ideas should be infrastructure and physical installations, so things you can touch and feel,” Gonzalez told participants. “They have to be low-maintenance, we can’t pay for any staffing for projects.”

Because no mayoral administration has ever implemented a citywide PB process in Chicago, alderpersons who choose to do it must use their allotted discretionary funds, or menu money, to pay for projects. Those funds, by city ordinance, are for infrastructure only: street light repairs, pothole fixes or, if you think outside the box, exercise stations at parks.

Crum, with UIC, said restrictions on projects — that they be capital in nature, and not require staffing commitments — is a major barrier to getting people engaged.

“If you think about what people talk about as a lot of their needs, you hear a lot of people talk about jobs, economic development, people needing resources for children, child care, violence prevention programs,” Crum said. “Those are the things that our people are going to come out to want to have an impact on.”

Lerner, with People Powered, said if the goal is to reshape how people view their government, and strengthen democratic processes, there has to be real money on the table for meaningful projects.

In Paris, France, for instance, the city-led participatory budgeting process funnels €‎100 million into community projects each year. Those can include programmatic ideas such as violence prevention services, and infrastructure projects such as solar panels.

“Paris is one of the most generous cities in the world for participatory budgeting,” said Antoine Bézard, a participatory budgeting specialist who consults with multiple French municipalities to implement and strengthen their processes.

Experts like Bézard cite the large funding amount as a reason for Paris’s participation rate, one of the highest in the world. Around 10% of Parisians cast votes annually in the city’s participatory budgeting process. That may sound dismal on a scale of 100, but is large compared to the 1% participation rate most Chicago wards see, according to UIC.

“People don’t think that they can change their cities, their own lives, their own living environment — so if you give them the possibility and the capacity to do it, you can change the way they feel themselves, the way they see themselves in the field of democracy,” Bézard said.

In the 49th Ward, Hadden holds the area’s long-standing participatory budgeting process close to her heart. She wasn’t the council member to bring it to Chicago — that was her predecessor — but she was a ward resident disillusioned by government and the 2008 recession at the time it came to the North Side.

Hadden recalls being a first-time condo owner then, and how the developer of her building fled the country, leaving vacant units susceptible to vermin and freezing pipes.

“The market crashed and the money stopped flowing when our building was only half complete,” Hadden said of the time.

“Which is the story of a lot of Rogers Park … And we’re still kind of feeling the impact of that half-gentrification, development boom and how it really fundamentally changed this neighborhood.

“I’ll say it’s no accident that PB really took root here during that time period. For me it was like, ‘Oh I have no power over here, here’s something tangible and local that makes me feel empowered and I can feel real results in my community.’ It was as simple as that,” Hadden recalled.

Hadden went on to work on participatory budgeting for years before running for office. Now, she’ll use her seat as an alderperson to push for an expanded, citywide process that focuses on Chicago’s youth — something she thinks could appeal to the city’s new mayor.

“We know that Mayor Brandon Johnson has a lot of high priorities among youth, youth employment, violence prevention, especially amongst youth,” Hadden said. “We could dedicate an engagement process with money behind it, right? Where young people are intentionally engaged with that they can implement and can make real change with dollars. We thought it was a good idea 10 years ago and we think it’s a good idea now.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson somewhat committed to that idea, saying the mayor’s office will explore ways to introduce aspects of participatory budgeting into the overall budget process.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government and politics for WBEZ.

This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.