Cambridge wants your votes on how to spend $600,000

Eric Levenson
August 17, 2015

A year after its residents voted to spend $320,000 on a public bathroom, the city of Cambridge is ready for its second go-round of participatory budgeting.T

his time, about $600,000 is up in the air, up from $528,000 total last year.

“I feel like the training wheels are off a bit,” said Michelle Monsegur, a budget analyst for the city.

Cambridge’s participatory budgeting is part of a larger movement that relies on a direct version of democracy, which The New York Times has called “revolutionary civics in action.” Residents pitch specific ideas for how to spend city capital funds, and then they vote on their favorites.

The idea originated in Brazil and has recently taken hold in cities like Chicago, New York City, and in Boston, where young people voted on how to spend $1 million of public funds last year.

The funding in Cambridge comes from regular property taxes, and Monsegur is hoping to increase the budget by $100,000 each year.

Unlike a major political election, any Cambridge resident over 12 years old is allowed to vote in their participatory budgeting program. That means the voters in these elections include the oft-forgotten political blocs of young people and non-English speakers who call Cambridge home.

The ballots and the ideas were made in five different languages, yet Monsegur said most voters at the non-profit Community Learning Center, which teaches English to adults, stuck to the English ballots to practice their language skills.

“They all wanted to vote in English, which I thought was great,” Monsegur said. “It’s their community, too, and I feel like [voting is] really important.”

For many voters, it was their first experience with American democracy. Or democracy at all.

“I feel really happy about this process because the city heard my opinion,” wrote Blanca, a student at the Community Learning Center. “It was an exciting opportunity for me because the city listened to me and that made me feel special.”

The ballot doesn’t include just any idea. The community suggestions are reviewed and pruned down by a committee of volunteers, which contacts the necessary departments and figures out cost estimates. The top-20 ideas were then put onto a ballot for the vote.

In the end, the top six vote-getting projects were funded last year, including laptops for the Community Learning Center ($27,000), bilingual children’s books ($7,000), a public toilet in Central Square ($320,000), eight bike repair stations ($12,000), one hundred new trees ($120,000), and six free public WiFi spots ($42,000).

This year, Monsegur and others in the budget office have focused more on reaching younger residents. Monsegur said they’ve shared ideas like building a rock climbing wall in Danehy Park and purchasing a car for vehicle-less high school students to use when taking Driver’s Ed.

“As these start to pop up around town, I think people will be more and more excited about this and more people will hear about it,” Monsegur said. “It’s your chance to actually get something that you think the city needs to do done.”

In particular, Monsegur had clear plans for the Central Square public toilet when it is completed.

“I’m definitely going to try it out when it’s here,” she said.

Cambridge residents are encouraged to submit their own suggestions here.