In some Chicago wards, residents vote on how tax money is spent. Should all Chicagoans get a seat at the budget table?

Participatory budgeting offers people a chance to vote on spending projects in their wards. It started in the United States in Chicago, but its growth has stalled.

SHARE In some Chicago wards, residents vote on how tax money is spent. Should all Chicagoans get a seat at the budget table?
Edwin Ortiz, equity officer in the city’s Housing Department, stands listening during a Youth Budget Roundtable session in the Winter Garden of the Harold Washington Library.

Edwin Ortiz, equity officer in the city’s Housing Department, stands listening during a Youth Budget Roundtable session in the Winter Garden of the Harold Washington Library.

Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Exploring critical issues facing our democracy and searching for solutions.

Along Chicago’s lakefront near Rogers Park, there are a couple of strange-looking exercise stations with gravity workout machines, pullup bars, benches — they look like a mix of a playground and gym. On a recent afternoon, three kids and their grandmother were playing there.

“I have absolutely no idea [what I’m doing], but. according to this, I’m working out my upper body, and I’m stretching at the leg lift station,” said 12-year-old Britain Konczal, who smiled ear to ear as she swung back and forth on a workout machine.

New to the area, their grandmother Regina Doresette was surprised to learn how this exercise station got here. Community members pitched it, working with the city to design it, then essentially campaigning for it in a public, ward-level election through an annual process called participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting, in which residents get a direct vote in how tax dollars are spent, has been around in Chicago for more than a decade, making its U.S. debut in the North Side’s 49th ward in 2009, led by then-Ald. Joe Moore.

Residents vote on how to spend the majority of the $1.5 million in “menu money” a year that Chicago City Council members are allotted for infrastructure projects — in the wards that choose to use it. It’s also utilized in a handful of the Chicago Public Schools as a form of civic education.

But participatory budgeting, or PB, has failed to launch in Chicago on the scale that advocates envision, lagging behind cities such as New York and Boston that have implemented citywide programs.

Now, proponents of participatory budgeting see an opportunity with Mayor Brandon Johnson, who has promised collaboration with city residents and whose transition report called for Chicago to be “real pioneer” in participatory democracy.

This playground and workout space in Rogers Park was built through a participatory budgeting program, in which residents voted to fund the park. 

This playground and workout space in Rogers Park was built through a participatory budgeting program, in which residents voted to fund the park.

Mariah Woelfel/WBEZ

“This will be the third mayoral administration that [we’ve] approached to talk about citywide PB,” said Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who before being elected, helped start the not-for-profit Participatory Budgeting Project that aimed to spread the concept.

People who work on participatory budgeting see it as a way to respond to a threat to democracy: the disconnect and distrust between elected officials and those they represent.

“That’s what we’re seeing, like, real disillusionment with the idea of democracy, if we only practice it through elections,” said Josh Lerner, executive director of the group People Powered, which aims to broaden the understanding of democracy beyond elections. “If people see a big, money-driven electoral system as the only way we can have democracy, the natural response to that is to not want democracy. And that leads to authoritarianism.”

Engaging the public

Each year, the city produces a massive, multibillion-dollar budget that’s difficult for even the Chicago City Council members who vote on it to wrap their minds around.

To try to engage more people in the process, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago Great Cities Institute to hold public input sessions. Johnson is continuing that effort, having just wrapped up a similar series of discussions.

But Thea Crum, an associate director of Great Cities, which facilitates the engagement process for the city, said there’s nothing quite like participatory budgeting to connect with people.

“People who participate talk about how they learn more about what their needs are in their community, that they meet more neighbors … they learn more about how government works, they’re more comfortable contacting government agencies and officials,” Crum said.

As Budget Director Annette Guzman listens over his shoulder, Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks with participants in a Youth Budget Roundtable session at the Harold Washington Library last month.

As Budget Director Annette Guzman listens over his shoulder, Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks with participants in a Youth Budget Roundtable session at the Harold Washington Library last month.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

Crum points to recent projects: a group of parents pushing to make their playground accessible for kids with disabilities; close friends of a teenager who died crossing train tracks to avoid a dirty, dimly lit underpass banding together to clean that underpass; students pushing for a new water fountain in a lead-ridden school.

These ideas come from city residents and city engineers and department employees help make them a reality.

“They’re in the process of co-creation with their government. … And so that is a direct way where the government is saying, ‘I heard you, and now I’m directly impacting and directly building what we have co-created together,’ ” Crum said.

Possibilities, limits

In the 49th Ward on a recent weeknight, Jeff Gonzalez, a community engagement director, welcomed several participants to a virtual information session. His goal was to very directly define what can and cannot be funded through participatory budgeting.

“The menu funds that we have can only be spent on capital projects,” Gonzalez said. “They have to be low-maintenance. We can’t pay for any staffing for projects.”

But Lerner said that, if the goal is to reshape how people view their government, and strengthen democratic processes, there has to be money on the table for meaningful projects — beyond capital improvements.

Hannah G., who declined to give her last name, takes notes during a roundtable budget discussion at the Harold Washington Library last month.

Hannah G., who declined to give her last name, takes notes during a roundtable budget discussion at the Harold Washington Library last month.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

In Paris, for instance, a city-led participatory budgeting process funnels €‎100 million into community projects each year, with 10% of people living in the French capital voting on projects, compared to 1% in Chicago. Those projects can include programmatic ideas such as violence prevention services and infrastructure projects such as solar panels.

In the 49th Ward, Hadden recalled taking part in PB as a ward resident. She and fellow first-time condo owners wanted to improve their half-finished building.

“For me, it was, like, ‘Oh, I have no power over here, here’s something tangible and local that makes me feel empowered, and I can feel real results in my community,’” Hadden said.

Now, Hadden said she will use her seat on the City Council to push for an expanded, citywide process that focuses on Chicago’s youth, which is something she thinks could appeal to the mayor.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Johnson said the mayor’s office will explore ways to introduce aspects of participatory budgeting into the budget process.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government and politics for WBEZ.

This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the runup to the 2024 elections.

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