Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

When Citizens Make a Budget, Can They Look Beyond Their Own Neighborhoods?

When Citizens Make a Budget, Can They Look Beyond Their Own Neighborhoods?
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In this week's The Big Fix, contributor David Lepeska explored the process of participatory budgeting. Across the country, a handful of districts have let residents decide how to spend some part of their city's discretionary budget. In New York, this has led to new parks and composting areas; in Chicago, a committee funded a collection of murals.

These projects are often a boon to the neighborhoods where they're based. But how do you create projects that would appeal to a larger slice of a city? 

That's the question facing Vallejo, the first American city to pass a citywide participatory budgeting program. In January, a new sales tax went into effect. Residents will decide how the city spends 30 percent of that revenue, which amounts to about $3.5 million. Citizen committees will design projects, which must be approved (or not) in a citywide vote. 

"If you live in northern Vallejo and you want a bus shelter, then you know what, you've got to partner with people in other parts of the city who want bus shelters too," says Councilmember Marti Brown. "People are going to have to learn how to think like that. It encourages people to work with groups they've never worked with before."

Josh Lerner, who runs the Participatory Budgeting Project, says he's seen communities do this on a smaller scale. In Far Rockaway, Queens, activists at local elementary schools came together to design a joint program that helped bolster the after-school programs at all three elementary schools, rather than proposing three separate projects.

Not everyone in Vallejo is quite so excited about this new budgetary turn, though. The measure passed last week by a slim 4-3 margin. Opponents worried that the public would decide to fund projects that are ultimately infeasible; others said the city would not be able to draw new voices into the process.

Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis argued that participatory budgeting could ultimately make things more difficult for cities. At the vote, the Vallejo Times-Herald quoted him as saying:

"Don't you think the public is going to be upset when we tell them that they get to vote on what it is they want to do with the money, and then we turn around and change it, because we have to, because we have the authority and we can't abdicate the responsibility," Davis said.

Brown, one of Vallejo's biggest PB proponents, is sensitive to those concerns. The city plans to devote about $200,000 on start-up costs. Much of that money will be spent on a consultant and, eventually, full-time PB coordinator. That person will be responsible for doing outreach across the city and ideally find ways to reach beyond the "usual suspects." This means, Brown says, that some meetings may be held where people gather, like at a church. It also means that events will be held on weekends (and that childcare will be offered) so that more people can participate.

"Those are the things you have to do if you want to engage traditionally disenfranchised populations," Brown says.

Vallejo is still in the very early stages of figuring out how all this will actually work. Soon a steering committee will meet to set guidelines. Brown expects the committee to require that approved projects be one-time expenditures rather than ongoing investments. They'll also need to tackle the question of whether they can ensure that only "tangible, concrete projects" make their way to the ballot. But if they do it right, Vallejo could serve as a model for cities across the country.

Photo credit: Jim Feliciano/Shutterstock

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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