The man who established the first participatory budgeting vote in the United States nearly 15 years ago lives all of half-a-mile from Evanston.
That’s where Joe Moore resides, and where, as 49th Ward alderman at the time, he set up participatory budgeting in 2009, what he says was its first use in the United States.
PB has been a fixture in Rogers Park ever since, giving residents there direct control over how a chunk of their tax dollars are spent.
With Evanston having its first PB vote next month, you might think those running the program here would have some questions for the guy who started the whole thing just down the road, and was in charge of it for years.
But you’d be wrong.
“I had a very, very early-on conversation with a Northwestern student who was looking into [PB],” Moore recalls.
It was a “20-minute phone call, about two years ago,” Moore says.
“But that’s it.”
No one has contacted him since then, but Moore says if they asked, he’d tell them that based on his experiences, there are things Evanston could probably be doing differently.
First off, Moore tells Evanston Now he is definitely “very excited” that Evanston is doing PB, where a panel of community volunteers winnowed down 1,300 suggested projects and programs to 20 finalists.
PB voters can cast ballots for up to seven. Winners will be funded … that is, until the $3 million set aside by the city runs out.
The principle of PB is the same on both sides of Howard Street. Principle yes, practice, not completely.
One of the most significant differences is the type of projects under consideration.
In Chicago, PB is limited to infrastructure capital improvements only … parks, recreation, streets, sidewalks, and so on.
In Evanston, nearly all of the 20 finalists are for social or cultural services, from a teen parents program, to housing for refugees, to an Asian American Art & Cultural Center.
“Wow,” Moore says.
“That’s so Evanston.”
Moore stresses that he’s not opposed to programs like that, not at all. But at this point, PB only has short-term dollars, and social services are long-term needs.
‘I’m glad they’re doing participatory budgeting,” Moore says, but also asks “is the City of Evanston committed to funding those projects for several years or indefinitely?”
Moore says unless there is a promise to fund the winning projects far down the road, OK’ing them now could come back to haunt.
“You’re building up expectations,” he says. But if there is only short-term money for a long-term issue, “a year later you might have to close up shop.”
In Evanston, the three million PB dollars come from federal COVID relief aid in the overall citywide budget.
In Chicago, each member of council has a $1.3 million aldermanic discretionary fund every year, which goes only for neighborhood capital projects. Some alders decide what to do on their own, but Moore set aside $1 million each year for participatory budgeting.
At least 50 PB projects have been funded in the 49th Ward since 2009, but they are all relatively small, like a dog park, a mini-soccer field, or an outdoor shower at the beach.
Four or five are funded annually, he says.
“You vote for a project, you build it, that’s it,” Moore says.
A single Evanston proposal, a mobile dental van at $2.5 million, would eat up most of the PB dollars, with no long-term guarantee of continued funding.
As part of Ward 49 PB, voters are also asked what percentage of the money they’d like to see for traditional public works, such as streets and alleys, as opposed to things like athletic fields and dog parks. Moore says the public works vote usually comes in at 50-60%, with a citizen advisory panel deciding what the public works will be.
One Evanston controversy is over who can vote in the participatory budgeting election.
According to the Evanston PB website, “People with a meaningful connection to the community are eligible to vote.”
“Meaningful connection” sounds kind of subjective, but it’s been interpreted by the PB leaders to include not just city residents, but also non-residents who work, own a business, or go to school in Evanston, including those as young as 14 (with parental permission). Undocumented residents and those who are homeless can also vote.
In Ward 49, the minimum age is 16, which, Moore says, was “controversial at the time,” but the goal was to “encourage youth to get involved.”
Fourteen, he says, seems like a stretch.
Also a stretch, Moore indicates, is letting non-residents cast ballots.
“We had a long discussion over who would be eligible,” Moore explains.
“We decided to limit it to residents of all shapes and sizes,” including undocumented immigrants and the homeless, but not anyone who lived outside of Ward 49, even if they worked there or owned a business.
Moore was 49th Ward alder from 1991-2019. Had he been re-elected, Moore says he would have instituted something else for PB — ranked voting for the projects.
That’s something Evanston voters have already okayed for municipal elections, and Moore says he would “strongly recommend” it for PB.
That way, Moore notes, “it would be more likely for ensuring that the projects that are voted for have broad-based support.”
There are now about 1,500 localities with participatory budgeting worldwide. It actually began in Brazil. Joe Moore’s 49th Ward was the first in the U.S.
Not only is Moore interested in Evanston PB because he lives nearby, but there’s also another reason.
Evanston is where he grew up.
Would-be PB voters in Evanston can register at pbevanston.org.
More news about Participatory Budgeting
Lots of social spending — for housing, health and youth programs — and more.
This vote on city spending can include non-residents and even 14-year-olds.
$3 million in COVID cash on the table.
“Participatory budgeting” holds first idea-generating session.