Cantabrigians Get a Say in How Taxes are Spent

Written by Rachel Kashdan

Rachel Kashdan
BU News Service

Cambridge is looking to its citizens to decide how to spend $600,000 of its 2017 fiscal year capital budget. This is the second time Cambridge has sought community input into the budgeting process. Citizens aren’t just coming up with the ideas, they’re also in charge of researching, developing, and getting them on the ballot too, and they’re quickly discovering that making decisions for their neighbors is a challenging task.

“It is kind of daunting to try and organize this,” Michelle Monsegur, city budget analyst who is helping to facilitate the program with the budget office, said. “It’s a lot of work not just for the budget office but for the departments who are helping answer research questions or respond to things. There’s a lot that goes on into the back end.”

Late last year Cambridge launched its pilot program, joining other US cities like Chicago and New York which have established similar budget projects that ask citizens how they want to spend some public funds. The goal was to increase civic engagement and respond directly to community needs. During the city’s first round, 380 submissions lead to six new community development projects including plans for a public restroom in Central Square, 100 new trees, and laptops for the city’s community learning center.

This time around, when the month-long submission period wrapped up at the end of August, 540 ideas had been suggested. Now it’s up to nearly 40 budget delegates, volunteers 14 years old or older, to narrow down the proposals to 24 ideas which will appear on the ballot in early December.

On Thursday night when the “Streets, Sidewalks and Transit” and “Culture and Community Facilities” volunteer committees met for the second time to begin cutting down their lists, questions arose about the subjectivity of evaluating the projects. The committees weigh the  feasibility, need and impact of each idea. One community proposal is to use the money to buy basketball sneakers for public use at courts around the city. Monsegur explained, however, that this idea would receive a low feasibility ranking because the shoes would likely be stolen.

Monsegur also said there is a “fair amount of trust that you have to give the volunteers,” but emphasized that despite most of the volunteers’ lack of finance experience, plenty of research goes into the decision making process. The volunteers do site visits, meet with city departments, and use data and city maps that show everything from demographics to public Wi-Fi access points.

The delegates will do the bulk of the work during development, for good reason.

“They’re the backbone to this process because without them we wouldn’t have any projects on the ballot. It wouldn’t be participatory budgeting if people submitted ideas and the city just picked the ones we liked the best,” Monsegur said.

One member of the “Culture and Community Facilities” committee, Jane Furey, 22, a recent graduate of Brown University who has lived in Central Square since January, volunteered to be a delegate this round after she stumbled upon participatory budget voting at a community farmers market last winter and was intrigued by the process. Now with almost a month of planning behind her, she’s surprised how much actually goes into vetting the suggestions.

“Our committee has over 100 ideas proposed and you have to go through every single one and if it’s not eligible–provide a reason why,” she said. “It’s definitely more work than I thought.”

This work that the delegates put into evaluating 540 ideas allows for diverse voices to be heard. This is something that Mina Reddy, director of Cambridge’s Community Learning Center witnessed firsthand. Her group will receive 20 new laptops after placing second in last year’s participatory budget process.

“I think our students really felt included in the community which is not always the case—most of them are immigrants, they haven’t grown up in Cambridge so I’m very positive about the experience,” Reddy  said.

Not all of the winners from the first round were received so favorably. The most votes last year  was allocated for a $320,000 public toilet now planned for Central Square but some residents remain skeptical.

Kim Courtney, who is running for Cambridge City Council, believes the toilet is a waste of the funds, which come from property taxes.

“I felt like the money should be going to more community based, almost like activity based types of things…I was a little disappointed to see the restroom, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to start with,” she said.

Many people who didn’t support the public toilet were also concerned about public safety issues, like drug abusers who might hang out at a public restroom.

Monsegur admits that the public toilet was the most polarizing item on the ballot, but said that there will be extensive discussion involved in selecting the safest and most visible place for the restroom.

Those who have been critical about the process are outnumbered, as Monsegur said “most of the feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive about participatory budgeting, especially after the vote,” and with that, she anticipates they’ll be able to keep expanding.

“Our hope is to grow the funding by $100,000 every year…but it’s ultimately up to the city council,” Monsegur said.

Transportation-related suggestions are numerous on this year’s list of ideas, like making Inman Square safer for bikers and pedestrians, or installing a TransitScreen in Kendall Square that would display transportation updates alongside the city’s Twitter feed. Fun suggestions like adding colorful outdoor lawn chairs outside the Cambridge Public Library or setting up outdoor ping pong tables have made their way onto list too. Other popular ideas under consideration include developing a scheduling app for Danehy Park, and a community garden in Wellington-Harrington.

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