EAU CLAIRE — City residents will have opportunities next month to gather together and brainstorm ideas for using $300,000 Eau Claire has set aside for projects created by the public.
A series of idea collection events are part of Empower Eau Claire, the first participatory budgeting initiative created in Wisconsin to give everyday residents direct control over a portion of a city’s budget.
“We want them to see this is their opportunity to do something that can benefit the community and they can be proud about,” said Ned Noel, Eau Claire’s senior planner.
After Empower Eau Claire was introduced to the general public through information sessions this fall, next month’s series of meetings will move toward creating projects that residents will vote on next year.
“Hopefully these idea collection events get the creative juices flowing,” Noel said.
During the two-hour events, attendees will be divided into small groups to talk amongst themselves about ideas for city projects. A volunteer facilitator will take notes on the ideas and they’ll be presented at the end of the meetings.
In addition to English-speaking residents, there are also events planned specifically for the city’s Hmong and Latino populations.
Susan Wolfgram, a member of the Empower Eau Claire steering committee, stated that asking community members — particularly those from groups that have been underrepresented — to be part of the decision-making process builds trust between residents and local government.
“Being ‘invited to the table’ is tokenism; being expected to actively engage to change the system is participation,” she said in comments emailed to the Leader-Telegram.
Inclusivity is one of the key goals of Empower Eau Claire and is reflected by the membership on its steering committee.
Former City Councilwoman Mai Xiong and UW-Eau Claire sophomore Jacksen Wolff are the co-chairpersons of that committee.
“I am able to bring a student perspective to the program to make sure it is accessible to us,” Woff stated in an email to the Leader-Telegram.
He hopes his position on the committee shows that the participatory budgeting is indeed community based, including Eau Claire’s population of college students.
“My hope for these idea sessions is that people walk away inspired by their community and excited about programs such as this,” he said. “There is a lot of potential to grow through these sessions while cultivating powerful and useful project ideas.”
Next month’s gatherings aren’t intended solely to solicit ideas, but also get neighbors to share perspectives with each other, build relationships, encourage leadership and get people involved in their community, Noel said.
Those with ideas for Empower Eau Claire will have until the end of 2021 to either voice their project at an idea collection event or submit a proposal online through the city’s website.
That online form will become available at eauclairewi.gov/empower following the first idea session, Noel said.
In January through March, city staffers will work with those who created those ideas to turn them into formal proposals.
“We will be actively encouraging people with great ideas to see them through,” Noel said.
Empower Eau Claire is intended to fund physical improvements on public property, not pay operating costs for programs or services.
Projects funded by it must be within Eau Claire city limits and accessible to the public. They can improve on existing city amenities or be something entirely new.
Though this is Eau Claire’s inaugural year of participatory budgeting, other communities overseas and in the U.S. have already done similar initiatives. Their experience gives an idea of the variety of projects that can be considered.
Adding to parks and playgrounds are among potential projects, but so are infrastructure or building improvements that would be viewed as benefits to the general public. Beautification enhancements to public property, water quality improvements and creating additional community gardens are other ideas that Noel said could be made possible by the funds. Safety improvements for bicyclists, adding solar panels to public buildings and creating informational signs written in multiple languages are also potential projects.
Volunteer committees will review the proposals made by Eau Claire residents before ultimately advancing a final ballot will go to a vote in spring.
Voting on Empower Eau Claire projects won’t be like the usual trip to the polls to cast a ballot in local elections during April. The exact format of the Empower Eau Claire voting is still being mulled, but it will be done over more than one date and one place.
Those voting on the projects will be required to provide an ID or other proof of residency to ensure they indeed live in Eau Claire and to prevent duplicate voting.
Empower Eau Claire isn’t just for adults. Children as young as 11 are encouraged to submit their ideas — as long as they are city residents.
The aim of this pilot year of Empower Eau Claire is to use all $300,000, but if there is some left over after the public decides which projects should be funded, the remainder will be saved for future years.
Eau Claire currently plans to allocate $100,000 annually through at least 2026 toward participatory budgeting, according to a plan of city projects for the next five years.
“The money is there to sustain itself,” Noel said.
After this inaugural round of Empower Eau Claire is done in spring, Noel expects there will be an evaluation of how it went and if changes need to be made for future years.