Cambridge Chronicle: Cambridge asks residents to spend $600K with second Participatory Budget

Natalie Handy
December 2, 2015

http://cambridge.wickedlocal.com/article/20151202/NEWS/151208941

The city of Cambridge has opened up a portion of the fiscal 2017 budget to the community, asking residents as young as 12 years old to cast their vote on how the city should spend $600,000 as part of the second Participatory Budget.

From Dec. 5 to Dec. 12, voters will cast their ballots online or at municipal buildings to narrow down 23 proposals to just six projects.

The ballot is broken down into four categories: Culture and Community Facilities; Streets, Sidewalks and Transit; Environment, Health and Safety; and Parks, Recreation and Education.

Since young residents are able to vote on the budget, it seemed fitting that they also be part of the proposal process, according to Jeneen Mucci, director of program quality and training for the Department of Human Services Cambridge Youth Program.

A youth committee was formed by five high school students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which was overseen by Mucci and Jessica Rivera, the teen program director at the Cambridge Youth Program. The students were chosen following a standard interview process.

This portion of the Participatory Budget project was part of a larger internship program that began in September. The five students, all young women, were assigned the Parks, Recreation and Education category. They looked at 113 projects surrounding youth centers, playing fields and other facilities young people use.

“It’s great skill building for young people to think about their connections to the community and being socially responsible and civically engaged. It’s important for the Cambridge community to know that young people can make thoughtful, educated decisions,” Mucci said.

“We knew we wanted to do this internship to think about what youth voice means in community and through projects, since as a 12-year-old you have a stake, why not have young people be part of the process to choose the projects on the ballot,” she added.

The young voting age was determined by the steering committee last year, because many of the projects take place on public properties like libraries, schools and youth centers that area teens use. Michelle Monsegur, budget analyst for the city, said it was important to have a group of young community members involved because they brainstormed projects that adults might have overlooked, such as renovating a youth center kitchen or replacing chairs in the high school.

“I’m not sure those proposals would have made it without youth delegates,” Monsegur said. “Why not ask them what’s best for the community?”

Projects to be considered for the ballot must meet a specific criteria to be eligible, according to the Participatory Budgeting website. Eligible projects must be capital projects, which means they involve infrastructure improvements, are one-time expenditures that cost $600,000 or less, benefit the public and are implemented by the city of Cambridge on city property. This includes streets, sidewalks, parks, libraries, schools, youth centers, senior centers and municipal buildings.

Participatory Budget funding cannot be used to make a grant to a nonprofit organization, and projects on the Cambridge Housing Authority, DCR, and MBTA property are not eligible. In the city’s first Participatory Budget cycle, $528,000 in funding was divided among six projects. This included 100 new trees and tree wells, 20 laptops for the Community Learning Center, bilingual books for children learning English, a public toilet in Central Square, eight bike repair stations, and free public Wi-Fi in six outdoor locations.

This year’s proposals suggest more technology for libraries, community gardens, free Wi-Fi in public places and water bottle refill stations, among many other ideas.

The process began in August, when the budget committee asked residents to submit their ideas for the vote, Monsegur said. The department received 540 submissions, which was then divided into four committees depending on the category of projects. Each committee had a list of approximately 100 ideas, and then researched what projects would be feasible and what were already included in the city plan.

The first part is to take care of the projects that were not eligible, Monsegur said, and afterwards evaluate the projects on need, impact and feasibility. This required research on demographics and maps to determine a variety of factors. The committees looked at where current free WiFi access points are, bike path locations, dog parks, etc.

The committees also used a matrix tool for research to rank proposals on a numerical scale to narrow down the list. The process took two months before getting down to the final proposals.

In terms of what proposals will likely win this year, Monsegur said she doesn’t have any predictions. Last year she said she didn’t expect the trees to be selected, but they were the clear winner by far.

One new proposal calls for a prepared food freezer van, which would help city programs double the amount of food provided to those in need, and Monsegur predicts that will likely be a popular choice.

Regardless of what projects win, Monsegur said the Participatory Budget in general is important for the Cambridge community.

“People who are 12 years old, and people who are not U.S. citizens can vote on this. It captures people who are part of this community, but can’t voice their opinions through normal elections,” Monsegur said.

The Participatory Budget vote kickoff begins Saturday, Dec. 5, noon to 4 p.m. at CambridgeSide Galleria. Voters can view project displays and speak with delegates. Other voting locations include Cambridge City Hall, libraries, senior centers, youth centers, the Community Art Center, and many Cambridge Housing Authority residences. Paper ballots at voting events will be available in English, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese and Spanish.

Residents can also vote online at pb.cambridgema.gov.

Contact Chronicle reporter Natalie Handy at nhandy@wickedlocal.com or follow her on Twitter at @nataliehandy.

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