CHICAGO — Ald. John Arena (45th) will skip out on participatory budgeting for 2017, using the year to work through a backlog of planned projects and strategize how to attract more constituents to the process, according to his staff.
Just 279 residents voted on how to spend the ward's $1.3 million discretionary budget in May, marking its weakest turnout since Arena rolled out the process in 2013.
"Participatory budgeting works best when people actually participate," said Owen Brugh, Arena's chief of staff. "The whole point is to give people direct say over how taxpayer dollars are spent in their community, and we need all those voices if we want it to succeed."
The Chicago Department of Transportation pushed forward its deadline for project requests, meaning that the 2017 budget would have to be decided by January, Brugh said. So instead of rushing through another public brainstorming session, the alderman will try to push through a series of stalled and over-budget projects left over from previous rounds.
Each ward's discretionary budget is dedicated to infrastructure projects, with about half typically poured into road re-paving. Ald. Joe Moore (49th) was the first to invite constituents to vote on how to spend it, and since then a handful of other aldermen have followed suit, including Gilbert Villegas (38th) and Anthony Napolitano (41st).
In the 45th Ward, several voter-approved initiatives from previous years were put on hold after city transportation officials threw up roadblocks, Brugh said.
One proposal put forward in 2015, for pedestrian "refuge islands" along Cicero Avenue at Pensacola Avenue, had to be shelved when transportation officials raised objections, he said. The project was removed from that year's budget, and the money allocated to it was instead spend on road resurfacing.
"We don't want this money to disappear when we're having these fights" with the transportation department, Brugh said. "So when we disagree over a project but we don't have time to argue, at that point we replace it in the budget, and just come back to it during a different year."
Transportation officials have identified 86 blocks in the 45th Ward in need of resurfacing. Each one would cost between $41,000 and $71,500.
Also adding to the backlog are some previously approved projects that ended up far pricier than originally projected, Brugh said. A proposal to widen the sidewalks at the intersection of Central Avenue and Leland Avenue ballooned to nearly $120,000, more than five times its original cost.
Arena also pledged to add sidewalk extensions — known as "pedestrian bumpouts" — at Central and Giddings Street, where 2-year-old Noah Katz was fatally struck by a van earlier this month.
The community group Jefferson Park Forward is compiling a list of proposals, mostly aimed at improving traffic safety, president Ryan Richter said.
"We'll send out a formal letter soon, but basically we're looking to ... push for more of these types of safety projects that reduce the speed of cars and make it easier to cross the street," Richter said. "That's in line with [the city's] goals, and our own goals of how we want our neighborhood to look."
Meanwhile, Joe DiCiaula, president of the Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association, said he hopes the break will encourage Arena to revisit other proposals that didn't pass muster in previous cycles, like refurbishing the Austin Avenue viaduct under the Kennedy Expy.
Nonetheless, the gap in public participation is well-deserved, DiCiaula added.
"We were at the point where 250 people were deciding how to spend $1 million," he said. "How representative is that?"
The participatory budgeting for 2018 will likely begin in "late winter or early spring" 2017, Brugh said. Voting will be held in October.
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