Budgeting by Democracy: is Chicago Ready for it?

April 5, 2010

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Residents of Chicago's 49th Ward claim they're the first political jurisdiction in the country to decide directly how their taxes will be spent. Today they begin early voting on how to shell out more than $1 million. That's money their alderman gets to improve ward infrastructure. But some observers say leaving it to voters isn't practical, and they doubt this experiment will spread to other parts of the city.

Chicago alderman each get $1.3 million to spend on whatever capital projects they like...

MOORE: meaning streets, alleys, sidewalks, public buildings, anything that is of physical nature.

Alderman Joe Moore decided this time around, he'd turn the decision over to his constituents. After months of meetings, handing out flyers, and taking input, residents generated dozens of ideas on how they'd like to spend the money -- from the pedestrian to the imaginative...

MOORE: ...such as murals and dog-friendly areas.

And artistic multifunctional bike racks. Cost? $105,000. Free WiFi internet access: $25,000. Even solar-powered garbage containers: $41,000.

The ballot lists 36 projects. Everyone who lives in the ward and is over 16 -- legal citizen or not -- gets to choose eight favorites. The items with the most votes get funded, until the money runs out. Moore says the project is perfect for his ward, because people are politically active.

Still, not everyone seems to have gotten word.

WBEZ: Do you know about the participatory budgeting effort that's happening?
McDERMOTT: No, I don't.

Steve McDermott is a Rogers Park lifer. He was outside his favorite neighborhood bar by the Morse El stop last week with his buddy, Ron Radloff. Though they were just steps away from a big sidewalk sign that spelled out "vote" in all caps, Radloff didn't know about the project either.

RADLOFF: I don't really pay attention to those sorts of things because I just find that I'm not really into big government, I'm not really into things like that.

Radloff says he doesn't need to be, as long as he feels safe and his trash is picked up. Alderman Bernie Stone in the next ward over says that's why this idea can't work. Wards are big, and there will always be people like McDermott and Radloff, who won't get involved.

STONE: It's he who speaks loudest, or the squeaky wheel that gets greased. That's not the way to run government.

Stone says that's why he's elected: to balance competing interests and make those decisions.

WBEZ: Would you ever try this in the 50th ward?
STONE: Actually, no.

But Alderman Joe Moore is undaunted. He got the idea after hearing that parts of Latin America, Europe, South Asia, and Africa had tried it successfully.

But his ward could well be where the experiment stops. Political Analyst Paul Green says it's unlikely other alderman will give it a try. In fact, he suggests that Moore may be trying to score political points.

GREEN: It's probably no coincidence that this is taking place in the year preceding the aldermanic election. Which, I'm sure is just coincidental.

In the last election, Alderman Moore faced tight competition and was forced into a runoff. He held on, and is now serving his 19th year in office. Moore says he thinks his constituents like the budgeting experiment, but he has no idea what voter turnout will be.

MOORE: Even if only 100 people vote, that's 100 more people that are making the decision, rather than just one person.

Early voting is at Moore's ward office through Friday. Voting day is Saturday at the Chicago Math and Science Academy.