As the Chicago City Council continues to review the $6.3 billion budget Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed for 2012, there is likely to be little debate among aldermen about one item in the spending plan: the $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program.
For years, each of the city’s 50 aldermen has received an annual allotment – about $1.32 million both this year and last year – to fix alleys and sidewalks, put in light fixtures, add speed humps and make other neighborhood improvements. Aldermen want to make sure the program remains intact.
“Before I vote on the budget, I want to have some assurance that it will continue,” Ald. Joe Moore (49th) recently told the Chicago Tribune “It’s important not to have generalities, but a specific assurance one way or the other.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she and other aldermen made clear their wish that the menu money not be cut, “and they heard us and that’s reflected in the budget proposal we’re looking at today,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Earlier this year, other aldermen expressed concern to the Chicago Sun-Times that the new mayor would reduce or eliminate menu money, even though some council members don’t spend their entire allotment.
That’s true in Austin.
Last year, all four of the aldermen who represent Austin had leftover menu money. It’s not clear why three of the council members – Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), former Ald. Ed Smith (28th) and former Ald. Sharon Denise Dixon (24th) – did not spend their entire allotments, as they didn’t return phone calls or could not be reached for comment.
“I long ago established something called a participatory process with the community residents,” Mitts said. “While I as the elected official must make the final determination about what is needed in the ward, I constantly get ideas and requests from ward residents.”
This year, Mitts said, projects that will be funded with menu money include the resurfacing of North Avenue, from Laramie to Central avenues, and $1,900 for a new track and football field for La Follette Park, with The Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation covering much of the cost.
It’s not clear what if any input the other Austin aldermen solicited this year as they spend their current allotment. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), who were both elected this year didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.
In another ward, the decision-making is more directly made by residents.
Ald. Moore, whose North Side ward includes Rogers Park, Edgewater and West Ridge, has used participatory budgeting to decide how his menu money should be spent.
Luis Klein, who has served as Moore’s participatory budgeting counselor, said about 1,000 residents turned out to vote in the participatory budgeting election held this past May.
Some of the projects the residents voted on included the installation of bike racks, a new playground at Touhy Park and improvements to several Metra underpasses.
Klein said participatory budgeting is not a new concept and can be tailored to any community.
“It was very easy to get people to see the big picture and to get that money needs to be equally distributed, and that we need to be responsible with the projects that we propose,” he said.
This process has value because the people who live in the neighborhood know best how to fix it, Klein said: “People have really good ideas about how to spend government money.”
Moore’s democratic budgeting style could be adopted citywide, says one former alderman.
“It can work in any ward, even in places like Austin,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“You may be able to turn out some citizens who’ve never participated because there’s something really at stake,” he said.
Simpson said getting a community involved creates unity about what’s important. But he said it’s crucial that residents care about the projects they’re tackling.
“Citizens will only participate when it matters,” Simpson said.
Klein said this kind of participation is important because aldermen could make decisions on their own but giving residents a vote holds the elected official more accountable.
“There’s nothing more transparent and accountable than the citizens making direct decisions on how to spend their tax dollars,” he said.
Elce Redmond, an organizer for the South Austin Coalition, said he agrees the best way to prevent corruption is by handing over more responsibility to the people.
“It’s the issue of power, and a lot of aldermen don’t want to concede that kind of power to local residents,” he said.
Redmond said he thinks participatory budgeting would be a definite improvement in Austin.
“I think it would be an excellent idea for the Austin area and any community primarily because it puts the ‘D’ back in the word democracy,” he said.