JEFFERSON PARK — Ald. John Arena's decision to put the 45th Ward's $1.3 million discretionary budget in the hands of voters is a "failure," according to the three challengers trying to unseat the alderman in the Feb. 24 election.
Arena asked residents of Jefferson Park, Gladstone Park, Old Irving Park and parts of Portage Park and Forest Glen in 2013 and 2014 how he should spend the $1.3 million set aside for each ward for infrastructure improvement projects through a participatory budgeting process.
Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido said it was "irresponsible" to allow approximately 1 percent of the ward's residents to decide how to spend money designed to benefit all 50,000 people who live in the 45th Ward.
"That money should be spent on roads, not fluff," Garrido said. "Participatory budgeting has been a failure."
Michael Diaz, who works as an attorney for the state of Illinois in the department that regulates banks, said residents elect an alderman to make decisions about how to spend the city's money so they can concentrate on their busy lives.
"The process is flawed," Diaz said. "I want to be responsible for these decisions. I'm not going to pass it off on the community."
Michelle Baert, who publishes a website and Facebook page filled with listings for family-friendly activities as the 45th Ward Mom, said only registered voters should be allowed to vote — not all residents older than 14, as allowed by Arena.
"I would focus on the basics — projects that may not be politically popular, but necessary for the health and safety of all residents," Baert said via email.
Voters decided to spend $550,000 — or more than half of the available budget — on road resurfacing in each of the last two years as well as $120,000 in 2013 and $150,000 in 2014 on efforts to rid viaducts of pigeon excrement.
In 2014, voters agreed to spend approximately $240,000 on new trees, many of which replaced trees that were killed by the Emerald Ash Borer and to contribute $100,000 toward a new playground at Independence Park.
In 2013, approximately 650 residents voted in the election, and in 2014, 500 people cast a vote, according to Arena's office.
Arena defended the participatory budget process, saying it engages Chicagoans in the civic life of the city and gives residents a voice in how their tax dollars are spent.
Because participatory budgeting means more than one person gets to decide where the money goes, it is a better process, Arena said.
"It was designed to move away from the old way, where if you knew the alderman, you got your street repaved or your streetlight fixed," Arena said. "It is no longer political capital the alderman gets to wave around. I can't be happier with the outcome."
Arena said he was proud that the $183,000 from the ward's 2013 discretionary budget for a new play surface at Beaubien Elementary School spurred Chicago Public Schools officials to spend $500,000 on a new playground parents had been demanding for years.
"I have to look beyond potholes," Arena said.
Last month, Arena's office held five neighborhood assemblies to begin the process of identifying the projects that will be up for a vote in the spring.
Committees made up of volunteers will evaluate the long wish list of potential projects for feasibility and cost and decide along with the alderman and his staff which projects will make it on to the ballot. In the spring, the committees will host several expos to present the projects members picked for the ballot and answer questions from residents, according to Arena's office.
About $300,000 is held back every year to cover cost overruns and emergency projects, according to Arena's office.
Baert said the process should be more transparent.
"The same office selects the projects which get on the ballot, the same office implements the ballots, stores the ballots and counts the ballots," Baert said. "In Chicago, one has to wonder about that kind of process."
Arena said the process is "completely transparent."
Last year, residents of the 22nd and 49th wards also decided how to spend the discretionary budget, which is sometimes known as "menu" money.
Garrido said that while the participatory budget process may be popular — Mayor Rahm Emanuel has encouraged other aldermen to consider adopting it — and gets good coverage by news reporters, he would spend the entire budget on road resurfacing, especially after last year's harsh Chiberian winter.
"The community can come together and plant trees and do pigeon abatement, but we can't resurface roads," Garrido said.
Street resurfacing should be the discretionary budget's first priority, Baert said.
Many issues brought up at the participatory budget meetings have been resolved by the ward office's staff using other sources of money making the process valuable beyond just the issue of how to spend his office's discretionary budget, Arena said.
"It extends our eyes and ears on the streets," Arena said. "It makes our office stronger."
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