Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) reviews participatory budgeting Tuesday night at the Robert Crown Center.

Participatory budgeting (PB).

Depending on your perspective, this new-to-Evanston way to divvy up public money is either: (1) a very creative way to get citizens directly involved in allocating funds for city projects, or (2) a waste of time and money, where only a handful of people (including non-residents and kids as young as high school freshmen) will end up deciding how to spend $3 million in tax dollars.

And if an admittedly unscientific sample of Evanstonians at Tuesday night’s 4th Ward meeting is typical, perspective #2 (negative) prevails.

“I implore you to stop this,” one 4th Ward resident told Ald. Jonathan Niuewsma (4th).

But it’s too late to do that now.

City Council has already committed $3 million in federal COVID relief funding for “PB,” an idea that Nieuwsma called “kind of an experiment.”

That experiment will see a direct public vote, on a series of potential projects, utilizing those $3 million.

A citizens’ group spent months coming up with a list of ideas via a variety of public input sessions.

Participatory budgeting idea-generating session in late 2022.

Nieuwsma said some 1,300 suggestions were submitted, which have now been winnowed down to 20, ranging from $50,000 for “Mental Health First Aid” (training for first responders, teachers, and others who may encounter people dealing with emotional crises), all the way up to $2.5 million for a “Mobile Dental Van.” Other ideas include everything from bike vouchers to public housing subsidies. (To see the full list, price tags, and descriptions, go to pbevanston.org).

The 20 finalist projects were revealed at the 4th Ward meeting. Those 20 add up to $11.2 million, but there’s only $3 million on the PB pot, so some things won’t make the cut.

Voters can choose up to seven (online or at an in-person voting location), and, according to the PB website, “the proposal with the most votes will be funded, followed by the proposal with the second most votes and so on until the entire $3 million funding is spent.”

While the $3 million total is less than one percent of Evanston’s overall budget, the well-intentioned plan is controversial.

First of all, there’s the voting process itself.

There will be an election, but it’s not the normal kind. Even if you’re registered for a regular presidential or city council election, that doesn’t matter.

To vote online in PB, you still have to register online at pbevanston.org. Voting begins Sept. 1 and lasts all month. There will also be several September in-person voting sites, where online registration is not needed.

“One of the main goals,” Nieuwsma explained, “is to bring people into the process who have not been in it before.”

But in trying to do that, PB is allowing not just Evanston residents to vote, but also Evanston “stakeholders,” those who work here, go to school here, or even have children in school here can cast a ballot.

Those children, Evanston residents or not, can vote at age 14, with parental permission.

4th Ward resident Joe Rocheleau said he is “kind of worried” about letting non-resident 9th graders have a say in how Evanston projects are funded.

Another issue … even though voters can choose up to seven projects, the money could all be gone after only two or three, depending on how the vote turns out.

Plus, some of the ideas, as noble as the projects may be, have a bit of “pie in the sky” financial reality. Maybe even more like “bakery in the sky.”

For example, if the city spends $2.5 million on the dental van, what happens in year two, three, and so on? It’s presumably either an ongoing additional expense, or you sell the van and lay off the dentists.

A van like that may be incredibly useful, but there are long-term implications for using what is only a one-time infusion of federal COVID dollars.

“It’s not part of our normal budget,” Nieuwsma explained.

“It’s like a bonus from the federal government.” If Evanston wants to continue PB beyond one year, the money has to come from somewhere, which could lead to political struggle.

“This $3 million,” Nieuwsma noted, “could have easily been spent on lead pipe replacement,” for example.

And then, there’s one more issue … “how much we’re spending,” on PB, Nieuwsma noted, “to decide how much we’re spending.”

PB has three paid city staffers.

Still, participatory budgeting has caught on in a number of communities across the country, including New York City, and right next door in Chicago, where Rogers Park was the first in our area to try it. Rogers Park PB began in 2009, and is still going on, with projects to show for it.

And despite some 4th Ward doubts, those behind PB are passionate.

At one of last year’s idea-generating sessions, Jean Cunningham, also a 4th Warder, said she “got involved because I want to make Evanston a better place.”

How many others, though, will get involved in a new electoral system in a non-election time frame where not a huge amount of money is at stake.

When Rogers Park ward began PB, turnout was an abysmal 1 percent.

An Evanston PB staff member said turnout is usually 1-10% nationwide. He is hoping that Evanston participatory budgeting, out of towners, 14-year-olds, and all, will be on the high end.

For comparison, voter turnout this past April for the board election in School District 65 (Evanston and part of Skokie) was 19%, and no one is particularly proud of that.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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15 Comments

  1. Quote from the above article:

    “City Council has already committed $3 million in federal COVID relief funding for “PB,” an idea that Nieuwsma called “kind of an experiment.”

    AND, “lest we forget”:

    https://evanstonnow.com/participatory-budgeting-vote-next-month/

    Participatory budgeting vote next month – by Desiree Shannon – August 2, 2023

    “Devon Reid has been pushing the participatory budgeting concept since 2018, when he was city clerk…”

    Naturally, these “experiments” are always “fun” when it’s “other peoples’ money”…

    I wonder how our City of Evanston would fare if we didn’t have primarily a bunch of adult toddlers in charge of our city government – I can *dream*, can’t I…???

    OTOH maybe I should simply “get with the program” and be jumping with glee that our city leadership thinks that *every day* should be Christmas Day, with us citizens merrily opening our “gifts” on Christmas morn – “gifts” that naturally, “grow on money trees”…

    Respectfully,
    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

  2. How about funding the pensions of our police and firefighters. I get that it’s not fun but pay down some debt.

  3. Most of the items on this list, if treated as a one time financial commitment, will end up being an epic failure. Not to mention a waste of our taxpayer money. Maybe replacing lead pipes in the city would be a better option?

    The sustainability of these endeavors should have been taken into account when coming up with this list. We don’t want Evanston to be a better place for only one year, we’d like expenditures to result in long lasting benefits for the majority.

    It makes no sense to allow for non-residents and children to vote in this process. It’s no different than opening up our general elections to non-Evanstonians.

    This budgeting idea is akin to the Powerball winner who ends up being poor and desolate. Windfall money that a person has no idea how to manage or spend wisely.

    No surprise that Devon Reid is behind this.

    1. I’ve been really disappointed in Nieuwsma. I wonder if he recognizes how ridiculous it sounds to say, “we could have remediated lead poisoning risk but instead we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for a consultant to help develop the wish list from a small number of random people, many of whom are not even residents of Evanston, to allocate millions of dollars on programs we can’t afford to sustain.”

      1. Many of us have been disappointed by our fourth ward representative. He is on the wrong side of several issues that impact his constituents. And it’s always a pleasure to show up to a fourth ward meeting and hear him say, “I’d like to wrap this up by 8:30pm so I can put my kids to bed.”
        Don’t run for office if you can’t spare the time.

        1. Good points. Nieuwsma has consistently opposed recall elections. It is hardly difficult to see why. I just hope Evanston can survive this council until the next election and that we get good candidates running.

  4. Why wasn’t it a criterion for suggesting projects that the expenditure represent a one-time (capital?) expense, without the necessity for continuing operational funding? Looking at the list, many if not most projects represent establishing programs with ongoing funding needs, adding another 3M to future years’ budgets. I thought ARPA funds were intended to fund acute needs created by COVID and were specifically not intended to establish programs with ongoing funding needs.

  5. Gee, why don’t we just have the general population vote on everything? Then we wouldn’t need Aldermen. This sounds like a stunt to get media attention.

    1. Based on these comments, I think you have missed the point of Participatory Budgeting. It gives voice to those who want to do more than criticize on Evanston Now. Propose some ideas. Some good. Some not so good. But heartfelt based on their needs and wants.

      I am a budget delegate. We are residents, passionate about things that might make Evanston a better place to live. Respecting our lived experience. Not with an organized agenda.

      For over six months, I was amazed by these “amateurs”, in the literal sense of the word. They love Evanston. I listened to HS seniors, NU students, community activists. Some of our ideas are solid, some more aspirational. But aspiration matters, especially when you are young.

      I learned so much. I should listen more carefully to my fellow citizens. I don’t know everything. I am not always right. You can only see the world through your own eyes. PB gave me a way to see things differently.

      1. Than you for the daily dose of virtue signaling. Aspirational would be wonderful if Evanston could get the basics right, like creating a thriving environment for businesses, infrastructure, safety, and education. I’m sure their aspirations would change a little if they were taxpaying homeowners.

      2. Naturally, it’s “fun” to “play with other people’s money”…

        This whole “PB” process is akin to a game of Monopoly… but with *real* taxpayer dollars…

        IMO budgeting matters are best viewed through a lens of *logic*, not “emotion”…

        Respectfully,
        Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

  6. SF:. Your virtue signaling is tired and pointless. We don’t need your guidance on how to spend our time.

    I’m happy that you were able to “learn so much” but that’s not the purpose of wise use of scarce resources.

    Evanston infrastructure, safety, cleanliness are in a sad state of affairs. The ideas listed for $$ were silly distractions from real work that needs to be accomplished to reverse, the increasing loss of Evanston civic life.

    Ward 4 and downtown have been hard hit with ugly and unsafe street scapes

    Nieuwsma refuses to focus on the real priorities. The audience asked him why he was not stepping in to represent real needs of our community.

    He said “ we have a $400 million budget this is only $3 million of it.”

    So, we’re allowing 14 yr old non-residents to waste money on non-sustainable and unimpactful excursions while sidewalks are being repaired with ugly piles of asphalt.

  7. My reaction to this PB idea was extreme. This appears to be insanity personified.

    1st: “. Even if a Evanston resident is registered for a regular presidential or city council election, that doesn’t matter. To vote online in PB, you still have to register online at pbevanston.org.”

    Voting online? C’mon! How about those without digital devices (a goodly number of seniors, especially over 70?

    2nd : If not for this website, I wouldn’t even KNOW this was happening. Along with many Evanstonians, I don’t get the Evanston Review (if it was even published there). Paying for subscriptions has become much more onerous in today’s world so how would the majority of people know about this?

    …out of towners, 14-year-olds…”

    3rd: Underage & non-Evanstonians will get to vote on this wacko idea which will affect ONLY those who live in Evanston?! Crazy! Why not allow all the US states to vote on our future – or, hey, maybe it does.

    “‘“This $3 million,” Nieuwsma noted, “could have easily been spent on lead pipe replacement,” for example. ‘”

    4th: Excellent point. Try taking away a project (Dental Van, etc.) & it’s immediately seen as an entitlement with a huge battle ensuing when it’s taken away; at this point, to avoid conflict, it becomes, alas, a normal part of the budget. A one time expenditure (lead pipes), OTOH, has no such expectation or baggage.

    The city council should be ashamed of passing this concept below the radar in the first place.

  8. Absolutely not!!! Let’s just vote in Council members who have some good common sense to make decisions.

  9. Ms F aren’t you a bit too seasoned to be so easily “amazed” by amateur, under-age budgeters. It is more unfortunate that amateur budgeters also are some more directly affecting our tax dollars like building a $40 million elementary school in a climate where their own district study predicts continued declining enrollment. Now THAT is amazing !

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