Boston Globe: Cambridge lets the public decide how to spend $500,000

Steve Annear
March 27, 2015

Fancy an outdoor restroom with contextual artwork and solar panels? Perhaps some workout equipment at the park where you could flex some muscle is more appealing.

In Cambridge, it could happen.

Those are among the ideas submitted by residents as the city opens up its budget process for public input on how to spend a half-million dollars.

The city is even getting kids involved. Residents ages 12 and up have until Saturday to toss their weight behind ideas including outdoor murals, new furniture for the library, of public bike repair stations. Another proposal calls for “Little Free Libraries” — stands where people can pick up and drop off books.

The “Participatory Budgeting” program is a first-time effort in Cambridge.

The process started in December, when residents shared their initial ideas. Then, from February through March, volunteers developed more refined proposals, before putting the best ones up for an online vote.

“Participatory budgeting is a democratic process through which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget,” according to a description of the program on the city’s website.

One of the more expensive proposals included as part of the pilot calls for the construction of a $320,000 “toilet for all” in Central Square, on Massachusetts Ave.

According to details and renderings of the toilet, it would provide a space for “shoppers, children, bike commuters, homeless, students, and early-morning and late-night patrons” to find some relief.

Some have supported that particular idea, but others said voters should shift their attention elsewhere.

“Excellent proposal but the city should view [restrooms] as a public health issue and one toilet doesn’t begin to make a difference,” one commenter weighing the proposal wrote.

Of course, there are other options on the table.

The most popular choices, based on votes, will be announced by officials in April. The money will then be used to fund those projects as part of the 2016 fiscal year budget. Projects selected could start taking shape as soon as July, officials said.

Steve Annear can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.