Participatory Voting station at Civic Center.

This is PB month.

Evanstonians (and some non-residents as well) can vote in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) election, deciding how to spend three million tax dollars.

Normally, that’s City Council’s call, but Council set aside some federal ARPA COVID relief funding for community decision in a one-year PB experiment.

20 projects are on the ballot, mostly for a variety of social services.

But with those projects adding up to $11 million, there’s no way all 20 can be covered.

So, the PB website explains that “Each voter may select 1-7 proposals. The proposal with the most votes will be funded, followed by the proposal with the second most votes, and so on until the entire $3m funding is spent.”

But what the website does not say that is that, at least in theory, a project coming in, say 19th or 20th in the balloting could end up funded, while others with far more votes could get shut out.

Here’s how:

Suppose five projects with the highest number of votes add up to $2.8 million.

That leaves $200,000 left before hitting the $3 million wall.

In response to a question from Evanston Now, PB manager Matt Ouren said, “We would then skip the next one if it pushes the total over the $3 million. We would see if any projects were under $200,000” and those would be funded “in order” until the $3 million was gone.

Yes, this is a series of “what ifs?”, depending on how the voting turns out.

Potential voters check out Participatory Budgeting project proposals at recent PB Expo.

But with an average price tag of nearly $560,000 per project, it’s quite possible that some top finishers could lose out, while others near the bottom could end up in the money.

This is particularly likely if the most expensive proposals come in as top vote-getters.

The priciest program is a mobile dental van, at $2.5 million. If that ends up #1, nine other projects would automatically lose out. That’s because each of those projects by itself would push the total over $3 million.

PB would then hopscotch through other projects to find (in vote order) what adds up to reach the cap.

Another scenario could see the dental van get nothing even if it comes in second.

If a proposal like Affordable Refugee Housing ($645,000) comes in first, a $2.5 million proposal (the van) would be passed over, even if it had the second most votes, because that second-place finisher puts the total over $3 million.

Please note that this is not to single out the dental van, as there are other combinations of projects which could hit close to but not over the $3 million ceiling, triggering the game of PB hopscotch.

To make things even more complicated, it’s also possible for the ten least expensive projects to be funded, as they add up to less than $3 million combined.. But then, the same search begins to see if anything else can squeeze in under the cap.

Yes, there are a lot of hypotheticals here, and yes, it may be a bit much for PB to explain on its website.

But when the votes are ultimately counted, don’t be surprised if some high-rated projects get zilch, and some losers become winners.

To learn more about the specific projects, and how you can vote in the PB election, go to

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

Join the Conversation


  1. How is that a wrinkle was just discovered? Who is going to iron out this wrinkle?

    1. Leaving aside the fact that participatory budgeting is inherently elitist and anti-democratic (giving small groups of residents with lots of free time and those who are organized around special interests control over the process ), one problem the whole thing is such a charade is that the city hired a consultant from Northwestern to run the thing who had zero experience in participatory budgeting.

      The guy has a background in human technology relationships—not budgeting or fiscal policy or local government finance.

      There are actually models for this and people in the region with experience. Chicago limits proposals to infrastructure or capital improvements with defined costs. Half of the things on the Evanston list are expensive human service programs that will require support for years to come.

      When it comes time to go to the general budget to fund things like a dental van or urban farm, other stuff like public safety or building inspections could be on the chopping block.

  2. This whole Participatory Budgeting process and initiative selection model is another example of a poorly planned, poorly architected, short sighted attempt to work with the Evanston community but really serves no long term purpose. Everything from the idea creation, planning process, election criteria, one time funding, short lifespan, and governance model is poorly administered.
    What’s the point of voting on a PB initiative if it’s passed over for another less popular project simply because it didn’t fall into the right pecking order? Looks like even $1.00 over $3MM would be enough to tip the scales in a different direction.

  3. This is a never ending story. Our government just keeps running in circles trying to please everyone but in the end pleasing no one. Just horrible government planning. It is amateur hour.

  4. “The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money…”

    – Margaret Thatcher. February 5, 1976

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

    1. According to a woman who also lavishly praised her country’s single-payer health insurance system.

      I know it’s a widely cited and very popular quote among conservatives, but it’s possibly even more vapid than “the government isn’t the solution, the government is the problem.”

  5. This is a very big wrinkle, indeed. Seems to me a variety of these issues should have been worked through before implementing the plan.
    I purposely chose to vote for fewer than 7 projects because I didn’t want to go over the funding amount, and hoped that those projects with the most votes would have an advantage. Evidently that is not the case.
    Seems pretty screwed up, somehow.

  6. Since this is one-time money, it would be wisely spent to put into each of the pension funds to reduce that liability.

    1. to J Balch: the big snafu in your comment to have used PB money instead to defray upcoming liabilities is that you suggest it could have been otherwise, WISELY SPENT – this PB exercise approved by City was not meant to include wisdom. And Why were some of these funds spent on extra pay for City staff to monitor / be involved with this novel PB ‘experience’ – who were these government money / procedure monitors?

  7. Wondering what the city is spending on the consultants, the marketing of the program, etc. Are those costs eating up the $3M or are they on top of the $3M?

  8. Have the council members nothing to do in their spare time but to think up these
    lunatic ideas instead of taking care of the current city problems. I’m going to put on my thinking cap to come up with an implausible way to spend 3M dollars.

  9. I feel like the City Council could have told us exactly what the city needs to spend $3 million. They are our elected officials and know the short and long term needs of our city, even if they are boring needs. I agree this is a fun exercise for people who have a lot of free time on their hands and not much interest in investing in what a city really needs (paved roads, schools that aren’t crumbling, care for disabled residents, etc.)

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