It was billed as seven out of twenty … the top seven vote-getting projects in Evanston’s recent participatory budgeting election would be financed, out of 20 projects on the ballot.

One of the projects, Rental and Utility Assistance, came in 6th, so you might think it was in the money.


Participatory budgeting had a $3 million pot of city gold (OK, it was actually federal COVID relief money) which City Council set aside for citizens to vote on in September.

Each project on the PB ballot had a different cost. Winners were to be funded in order of finish, until the $3 million ran out.

But there was a catch, which was never explained by the PB organizers until it was pointed out by Evanston Now.

Even if a project came in 1st-through-7th in votes, if that project pushed the total over the $3 million, it was dropped, with the next one (or ones) moving up.

So, by the time 6th place (Rental and Utility Assistance) came around, $2,555,000 had already been allocated. The Rental/Utility cost of $747,000 put the total above the $3 million in available funding. Sorry, gone.

1Mental health first aid training3,400$50,000
2Grants to support marginalized students in grades 3-123,117$700,000
3Evanston urban farm3,014$350,000
4Affordable housing subsidy2,918$810,000
5Affordable refugee housing2,890$645,000
6Youth and young adult drop-in center2,692$210,000
7Small business grants2,095$150,000
Remainder for PB Leadership Committee to allocate$85,000
The winning Participatory Budgeting projects

The Youth and Young Adult Drop-In Center then jumped from 7th to 6th, and Small Business Grants, which actually came in 8th in the voting, became a winner by moving into the 7th slot.

Rental and Utility Assistance, which was not funded, received nearly 300 more votes than the Drop-In Center, and nearly 900 more than Small Business Grants, both of which are receiving public dollars.

But those were the rules. Can’t go over $3 million total, because that’s all there was.

Participatory Budgeting voting station at Civic Center.

And actually, there was one other funding issue.

The seven funded projects actually totaled a bit below $3 million. $85,000 short, to be exact, which led to a question. What happens to that money?

Giving it back to the city for other uses was not an on the table, since all $3 million was set aside for PB.

One option was to give all of the remainder to what had then become the 8th place finisher, Senior Transportation Assistance. But the $85,000 would have covered only part of that project’s price.

A backup plan was then OK’d by the PB committee, according to manager Matt Ouren. The top seven winners will divide it up the $85,000, each receiving 2.91% of their individual price tags.

“The decision to proceed with the backup plan,” Ouren explained in an email to Evanston Now, “was based on the staff determination that it would not be feasible to implement the senior transportation proposal with less than half of [its] proposed budget.”

While this whole thing may seem like just a math exercise for political numbers-crunchers, it’s actually a lot more than that.

First of all, it’s your money.

And second of all, the public PB vote was just a one-year experiment. The federal COVID money which was used won’t be available again.

By PB standards nationwide, the local election was a success. More than 6,500 ballots were cast, which works out to around 8.5% of Evanston’s population.

That’s a bit misleading, however, as PB allowed those as young as 14, as well as non-residents with a “stake” in the community to vote, not just local residents 18-and-over, as in traditional elections. Still, the Evanston PB turnout here was much higher than similar elections in other places.

Participatory budgeting idea-generating session in late 2022.

Besides putting the winning projects into the budget, City Council faces another PB decision … whether to have PB next year at all.

City Hall faces potentially large deficits and increasing demands for various services (such as hiring more police officers), but some PB advocates are already pushing for more than $3 million as they call for doing this again.

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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