As we’ve seen in several wards, the participatory budgeting process often results in residents choosing to spend some of the ward’s discretionary “menu” funds on walking, biking, and transit projects. 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, has has opted not to hold a full-fledged PB election, but for the second year in a row, he’s allowing constituents to have a say in how the district’s money is spent via an online survey.
Last year, this method led to the ward’s $1.3 million in menu funds being budgeted mostly for conventional infrastructure improvements, such as street repaving, sidewalk repair and streetlight upgrades. However, it did result in a new pedestrian refuge island at Western and Cornelia, by Lane Tech high school, where drivers struck students in 2011 and 2012.
Pawar decided against holding a full PB election because it requires a significant amount of money, time, and effort on the part of ward staffers and residents, according to chief of staff Jim Poole. Instead, in November of last year, the ward sent out block audits to block clubs, community groups and residents asking them to assess the condition of their streets, alleys, sidewalks, and streetlights, as well as the bikeability of the block. More than 100 audits were completed.
The ward used that info to create a preliminary list of projects, totaling about $5 million, for the online vote. $900,000 is available for these projects, since $400,000 has already been earmarked for improvements to local public schools, such as landscaping, playgrounds, a learning garden, and an amphitheater.
In addition to meat-and-potatoes infrastructure repairs, this year’s list included a few pedestrian safety improvements, such as “Stop for Pedestrians in the Crosswalk” signs, and a new pedestrian refuge island at Lincoln and Leland. Voting took place from March 14 to April 15 via a SurveyMonkey site. Constituents could also cast their vote over the phone or in person.
Poole doesn’t think the digital divide had much of an impact on voter turnout. “Our people tend to be pretty connected,” he said. “We haven’t had too many complaints, but we try to be mindful of that issue, so we’re happy to accommodate people by printing out the survey.” This year 1,263 people voted.That’s a significantly higher turnout than in most of the four wards that held full-blown PB elections last year, which required in-person voting.
While the voting was taking place, ward staff examined every corner of the district, checking out infrastructure conditions themselves, Poole said. Pawar will use the information they gleaned, plus 311 requests, info from city departments, such as streetlight outage data, along with the SurveyMonkey results, to choose the final projects for funding. “The condition of a street is in the eye of the beholder,” Poole said. “We want to make sure we put the money where it’s needed.” Projects that aren’t selected this year will be on the ballot in 2015.
Last year, the projects Pawar picked generally corresponded with the ones residents selected. “The vote is helpful, because it allows you too see the scale of how many people want a particular project,” Poole said. “We think the more input we get from the public, the better decisions we’ll make.”
The 2014 vote is currently being tabulated. There will likely be a presentation on the chosen projects next month.