Cambridge Chronicle: Cambridge voters to decide how $500K is spent in city’s budget

Sara Feijo
March 18, 2015

Lifelong Cambridge resident Ebi Poweigha felt helpless as she watched the city transform itself one construction project at a time.

But that feeling has changed since her involvement in Cambridge’s first ever-Participatory Budgeting (PB) initiative, which will allow residents to decide the fate of $500,000 of the city’s 2015-2016 capital budget next week.

“I was super excited to hear the city was doing this thing,” said Poweigha, who is the facilitator of Streetsmarts, one of the committees who narrowed down submitted ideas for PB projects. “Witnessing the huge construction projects transforming the city seemingly overnight, I felt like a helpless bystander in my own home. PB gave me a way to be involved in a real and meaningful way.”

Launched last fall, the pilot initiative aims at involving residents in the budgeting and city-building process, and helps ensure that the city’s capital plan reflects the priorities of residents, according to Jeana Franconi, the city’s budget director.

“We’re excited about PB in Cambridge because its an inclusive, community driven process in which all Cambridge residents 12 and older can vote, regardless of their eligibility to vote in regular elections,” said Pam Jennings, of the Participatory Budgeting Project.

A 21-member volunteer Steering Committee has been guiding the process, collecting ideas for projects through an interactive online map, email, mail and through five assemblies and other informal events around the city.

Since January, more than 40 volunteer budget delegates worked in four committees to narrow down the 380 submitted ideas into approximately 20 proposals for capital projects in four different categories: Culture and community facilities; environment, public health, and public safety; parks and recreation; and streets and sidewalks, Franconi said. Projects will be listed on a ballot during voting period from March 22-28.

“The 20 projects on the ballot include improvements for parks, libraries, public spaces, and transportation, among others,” Jennings said. “It will be super exciting to see which projects get the most votes.”

According to Franconi, budget delegates conducted research, site visits, and community needs assessments to help prioritize projects. They then consulted with city staff to develop cost estimates for proposals, she said.

For Poweigha, the process of whittling down the list of ideas was initially daunting. Streetsmart, she said, had the smallest committee with only five members, and the most ideas, 151.

“But we did it! It took analysis, conversation, community knowledge, lots of support from the city Budget Office and PB staff, and really thorough and enthusiastic work done by the group, which eventually grew to six (members),” Poweigha said.

Vote week will kick off with an event at the Cambridge Public Library on Sunday, March 22, 2-4 p.m.

Budget delegates will promote projects and show off displays at project expos on Tuesday, March 24, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Windsor Street Health Center, and Saturday, March 28, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Cambridge Community Center.According to Franconi, Cambridge will be the first community in the United States conducting the initiative and using an online voting tool with text message-authentication that ensures that residents only vote once.

The pilot initiative has been in the works for approximately two years, according to Franconi. It was first implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, and since then, multiple cities in the United States have incorporated the process, including New York City, Chicago, Vallejo, California, San Francisco, and neighboring Boston.

Winning projects will be announced April 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Citywide Senior Center, Franconi said.

For a list of voting locations, visit Paper ballots will be available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole and Mandarin.

Contact Chronicle reporter Sara Feijo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @s_fjo.