Friday, June 5, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin ventures into civic crowdfunding

The Internet is replete with crowdfunding appeals for endless pet projects: help fund your college roommate’s rap EP, pitch in for your buddy’s film or donate a few dollars toward your cousin’s volunteer trip to Haiti.

But what about a Kickstarter campaign to outfit a neighborhood pool with picnic tables, benches and a new pavilion?

That’s just the kind of project a new initiative out of the city’s Neighborhood Partnering Program is looking to facilitate. And, to some extent, it already has – though the program one neighborhood has set up its own donation page in lieu of using a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter, which charges a 5 percent administrative fee.

The Northwest Austin Civic Association has raised more than $18,000 of its $30,000 goal to buy picnic tables, benches, shade structures, a picnic pavilion and several construction projects around the pool. Once it hits that mark, the city will kick in more than $57,000 of its own funds.

“I think we’ve got the coolest program in the city,” said Justin Golbabai, manager of the Neighborhood Partnering Program, which is part of the city’s Public Works Department.

In October, the former City Council approved a resolution directing City Manager Marc Ott to explore civic crowdfunding within the Neighborhood Partnering Program, which has been participating in cost-share projects with neighborhood groups since 2010.

Last week, a memo sent to Mayor Steve Adler and current Council members outlined what the Public Works Department found and the actions it would take. It broke down the pros and cons of four of the most popular crowdfunding platforms, including Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and named two projects for piloting the online crowdfunding initiative, including improvements to Murchison Pool in west Austin.

But what does it mean for civilians to pay for items that, as some might argue, the city should be buying? According to the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget for Fiscal Year 2014-2015, the city paid for the replacement of shade structures and picnic tables at Bartholomew Pool. So why should neighbors of Murchison Pool have to, in part, pay for their own?

In an interview with Seattle’s KUOW, MIT researcher Rodrigo Davies pointed out one danger of civic crowdfunding: If citizens prove that they are successful at raising money for these projects, governments might feel justified cutting back their own funding for them. This issue comes more into focus against the backdrop of dwindling municipal budgets – as the question of a much larger homestead exemption hangs in Austin, the city has looked into cutting department budgets by 2.5 percent.

Lauren Stanley is the lead on the Neighborhood Partnering Program’s other pilot project for online crowdfunding, run through the JJ Seabrook Neighborhood Association. The project would transform a portion of EM Franklin Avenue between East MLK Boulevard and Manor Road into a green street, complete with bike lanes, street art and rain gardens.

Arguably, street art is not something the city would typically pay for. But Stanley said she was interested in the project because she thought it might get the city to start thinking more about funding other green initiatives – totally on its own bill.

“Obviously, the city is not going to have nearly the kind of resources to do the street the way it can be done,” Stanley said. “But there’s part of us that’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re putting all this effort into public property.’”

However, Stanley added, she’s uncomfortable that the neighborhood would then be responsible for future maintenance of the project.

“Maybe, eventually, the city steps in because it’s for the benefit of the city,” she said. “But at the same time, they’re kicking in a ton of money.”

While the neighborhood association is responsible for nearly $17,000 in building costs and about $23,000 in maintenance costs, the city will put up more than $130,000. It will also be funding sidewalks and other street improvements deemed necessary outside of this project, totaling an additional $266,200.

Golbabai said he understands the desire to ensure that civic crowdfunding efforts don’t supplant projects that municipalities should be funding. He said that each year, city departments draw up budgets as a list of priorities, some of which eventually get axed. With civic crowdfunding, he said, these projects can breathe again – with a little money from citizens’ pockets.

“If you’re a normal citizen and your project is not on that funding prioritization list, is there a way for you to actually be empowered and help make change happen?” Golbabai asked. “That’s where I see our program fitting that need.”

Photo by JD Hancock made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

This story has been corrected.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

Public Works Department: This city department oversees major capital improvement projects; maintains the city's trails, roadways, and bridges; and promotes safe travel on city thoroughfares.

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