SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And like other states across the country, Illinois is enduring the economic slowdown that has left civic budgets in crisis. The federal government almost shut down twice last year because of standoffs over the debt ceiling. A citizen might think: I could do a better job myself. Well, residents of Chicago's 49th Ward might get to do just that, thanks to a three-year-old budgeting experiment. John Biewen has the story.
JOHN BIEWEN, BYLINE: The 49th Ward is better known as Rogers Park, a neighborhood of middle-class houses and apartment buildings, home to Loyola University. It's known for diversity and an affordable, laid-back kind of cool. But the 49th has a new claim to fame. In 2009, the ward's alderman, Joe Moore, became the first elected official in the country to hand over the purse strings to his constituents.
JOE MOORE: I am ceding my power to decide how this money is spent and giving it to you.
BIEWEN: Alderman Moore speaks to a roomful of people sitting in folding chairs at the Willye White Community Center.
MOORE: I want to acknowledge JB Alberto's Pizza for providing us with our dinner tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
BIEWEN: About 40 people have come out on a cold November night. Moore tells them that each ward in Chicago gets $1.3 million a year from the city to spend on capital improvements. Usually, the aldermen themselves decide how to spend the money. For the third year, Moore is using an alternative process called participatory budgeting. The first step is a series of neighborhood meetings like this one, where people call out ideas.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We wanted some bathrooms at the Juneway or Rogers Beach.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Could we get a protected bike lane on Sheridan Road?
ROBIN MCPHERSON: We need some water in the summer for children.
BIEWEN: That's Robin McPherson. She's a grandmother in her 50s, polite but intense, with a gold cross around her neck. She works for a nonprofit group, helping to house people with HIV. Robin has lived in the neighborhood for decades but this is her first participatory budgeting meeting. She signs up to serve on one of the volunteer committees that will spend months meeting and doing research. They'll pare down long lists of projects for these first meetings to just a few items that will go on a ballot for a special spring election.
MCPHERSON: Well, I'm in.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MCPHERSON: OK. Here we are. We're at Pottawattamie Park in the 49th Ward.
BIEWEN: Standing in her neighborhood park, McPherson points out two poles stuck into a concrete slab - essentially a pair of showers for kids to stand under on a hot day.
MCPHERSON: I would have some water rings, and the kids going through the water rings. They go in. They go that way.
BIEWEN: Since one of those kids is McPherson's two-year-old granddaughter, she wants something fancier.
Then they have the whirly, coming all over everywhere, you know, whirly water. And I just think it would bring a lot of families together, different cultures, ethnic groups.
For Alderman Moore, getting people like Robin McPherson involved in city government is one of the biggest benefits of participatory budgeting. He says a total of about 400 people attended the nine neighborhood meetings last fall.
MOORE: I've never held a community meeting that had 400 people attending.
BIEWEN: Giving budget power to residents has changed what gets done with infrastructure money. When Moore called the shots, he chose only meat-and-potatoes projects: street repairs, a new crossing signal or two. Under the new scheme, the ward's residents have funded showers at the beach, heated bus shelters, a $110,000 dog park.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS GROWLING AND BARKING)
BIEWEN: Some skeptics say participatory budgeting allows small voting blocs to band together and push through pet projects. Those who like the process say, well, at least with this approach the people wielding power are not the rich or well-connected, but regular citizens who choose to put in the time.
MCPHERSON: Well, I haven't been able to meet with the park supervisor.
BIEWEN: It's two months after the first neighborhood meetings and Robin McPherson is now on the Parks and Environment Committee. She's gathered photos of different water features and info on the potential price tag.
MCPHERSON: He said if you have to put in new water lines, we're talking about $75,000 or probably more.
BIEWEN: If summers continue to be as bad as they are, it'll be great for the kids.
MCPHERSON: It would be. OK. So, I will see you all, but I will be on email. I feel good. They jumped right into it, you know, into my project.
BIEWEN: So are you feeling more confident it'll at least get on the ballot?
MCPHERSON: Yes. I feel confident.
BIEWEN: Three months later, a Saturday in spring, and the participatory budgeting vote in a school cafeteria.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ballot, sticker. Good to go. Thanks for coming in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Have a good one.
BIEWEN: More than 1,300 people cast ballots voting on 21 projects and how much to spend on street repairs.
MCPHERSON: Oh, nervous. I'm feeling very nervous.
BIEWEN: Robin McPherson spent the day trying to sell her water park project to voters. She and dozens of other people gather in a neighborhood bar next to the L tracks.
MOORE: All right. We are going to reveal, one at a time...
BIEWEN: Alderman Moore announces the results: 53 percent of the million dollar budget goes to street repairs. The rest: trees for a park, sidewalks, a playground and...
MOORE: The murals.
BIEWEN: Some artist's murals on viaducts - but no water park.
MCPHERSON: Um, well...
BIEWEN: Robin McPherson's project fell a couple hundred votes short.
MCPHERSON: We need that water park in this community. I'm just preparing myself for next year, to work even harder.
BIEWEN: She vows to double her 322 votes in next year's election. But Robin says she's happy. She agrees with her alderman that letting the people make budgeting decisions helps to bring the neighborhood together. Several council members in New York City have now adopted the strategy, and it may soon spread to more wards in Chicago and to medium-size towns in California and North Carolina. For NPR news. I'm John Biewen.
SIMON: And that story came to us from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.