Cambridge Chronicle: Free Wi-Fi, trees, public toilet top citizens' budget choices for Cambridge

Monica Jimenez
April 8, 2015

Bicycle repair stations, public trees and free outdoor Wi-Fi will be coming soon to Cambridge if approved by the City Council this spring, but one benefit has already arrived: a participatory budget tradition.

In a crowded awards ceremony April 7 at the Cambridge Citywide Senior Center, city officials announced six winning ideas from a first-ever process allowing Cambridge residents to choose exactly where and how to spend $500,000 of the city's free cash.

In addition to installing eight bicycle repair stations, 100 trees and tree wells and six free outdoor Wi-Fi locations around Cambridge, residents also voted for a public toilet in Central Square, 300 to 350 bilingual books for children learning English, and 20 new laptops for the Community Learning Center, for a total of $528,000.

But on top of these new resources and amenities, the process itself has been its own reward, according to city officials and project volunteers, who will gather again for a feedback session May 5 at the Senior Center. Rather than a one-time free cash expenditure, it will become a regular part of city budgeting and will be funded by the property tax in future years, said Louis Depasquale, Cambridge's assistant city manager for fiscal affairs

“You have made this not a one-time event. You have made it into something,” Depasquale told the crowd. “The time you spent making this work was incredible. It was far beyond anything we could have expected.”

The city has tried and failed to involve residents in the budget process for 40 years, Depasquale said. Only three or four people typically show up to a given Finance Committee meeting, said Councilor Marc McGovern, chairman of the committee.

Councilor Leland Cheung, who first proposed the idea based on a process in the city of Lisbon, Portugal, contrasted that number with the jam-packed room at the Senior Center Tuesday night.

“There are more people here now than have probably showed up to any finance meeting ever, in total,” Cheung said. “I think that is just the spark of how we get people engaged in the budget process.”

With the guidance of Brooklyn-based contractor Participatory Budgeting Project and the efforts of more than 70 volunteers, residents submitted more than 380 ideas for how to spend the $500,000, said Budget Director Jeana Franconi.

Volunteers narrowed those down to 20 proposals that appeared on the most recent election ballot, and from more than 2,700 votes, six clear winners emerged, Franconi said.

Councilor Nadeem Mazen said he's impressed by the sense of ownership residents feel over specific projects and city planning in general when they participate in the budgeting process, and Cambridge resident Kelly Dolan, who volunteered on the 21-member steering committee, described it as a fulfilling, eye-opening experience.

“I'll be honest: I got involved because I wanted the park in my neighborhood to get renovated. It's not going to; it didn't make one of the 20 projects. But I got way more out of this project than I could ever have imagined,” Dolan said. “It got me thinking about what our city really needs and how we can allocate resources to a wider group of residents across the board.”

Marveling at the diversity of participants, Councilor Denise Simmons highlighted what this means for democracy.“We believe in hands-on democracy. If it really happens, it's not neat and nicely packed,” Simmons said. “It's a little messy and hands-on, and that's what we like in Cambridge.”

If City Council approves funding the winning projects, the city could move forward fairly quickly with ordering the laptops and installing the bike stations, although other projects – such as the Central Square toilet – will require more time and a community process, Franconi told the Chronicle after the meeting.

Mazen was looking even further down the road.

“What would meetings look like if we had this diversity and age diversity of participation over elder services and police militarization and other issues that affect people day to day?” Mazen said. “I think it also allows us to raise the bar, fortunately or unfortunately, for the whole city, department by department.”

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