Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) expected the West Side’s first participatory budgeting vote to draw in significantly more people than it did.

The decision on how he should spend $700,000 in “aldermanic menu” funds came down to only 80 people. By comparison, when Ald. Joe Moore (49th) became the first alderman ever to try participatory budgeting, 200 people voted. The number looks even smaller in light of the fact that Taliaferro opened voting to all ward residents 16 and olders — so the pool of potential voters was higher than the number of registered voters.

But the alderman said he isn’t deterred. Next year, he said, he will team up with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute to help spread the word. Taliaferro said he thought that the low turnout was probably due to the newness of the process.

“It was something new for the ward, it was a first year,” he said. “Which is why, I think, I’m optimistic that we’ll see greater attendance and participation next year.”

Every year, each alderman gets $1.23 million in so-called “Aldermanic Menu” money, which they can spend on whatever ward infrastructure projects they want. In 2009, Moore became the first alderman to open the process to the public, inviting all ward residents to suggest possible projects. Since then, Moore has been using his menu money on whichever projects got the most votes.

Over the years, many aldermen have followed Moore’s lead. During the 2015 City Council election, Taliaferro pledged to add the 29th Ward to the list. He didn’t do it during his first year in office, he said, because the ward had too many pressing infrastructure issues that had to be addressed immediately. This year, he said he felt comfortable enough to ask residents how they’d want to spend $700,000.

During the voting period, Taliaferro advertised the vote on the ward website, through social media and newspaper advertisements, among other means.

The six projects with the highest votes and which will likely be implemented included two projects that Taliaferro personally supported: the installation of exercise equipment at Amudsen Park and a mural on the Chicago side of the Green Line/Metra underpass. Other projects that will be implemented include adding three community gardens, building two pedestrian refuge islands on North Avenue, putting a mural on the railroad viaduct near Central/Lake intersection and adding neighborhood street poll banners.

One of the projects that didn’t make the list was the proposal to put up neighborhood signs in Austin. The South Austin Neighborhood Association campaigned heavily for it. When asked if there was any chance it would come back at the next year’s participatory budgeting, Taliaferro said he hopes so.

“I really do [hope so],” Taliaferro said. “That was one of the projects I favored the most, so I’m hopeful that the same project will be put before the community next year. I thought it was a great idea.”

While Taliaferro said he was disappointed with the participation numbers, he also noted progress.

“I think the process went well for a very first year,” he said. “And I’m very satisfied that we were able to bring something new to the 29th Ward.”

Since the vote was held, Taliaferro said, he’s been working with Alexandra Holt, the Chicago Budget Director, to hammer out the particulars of the projects. Although the money has been allocated, the alderman said, city officials still need to figure out the details of what it would take to make the projects a reality.

At this point, he said, it’s too early to know how soon it will be before the projects actually become a reality.

“It will be my hope that they will all be done this year, but I can’t promise that,” said Taliaferro.

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...