Lessons in Participatory Budgeting

Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend Monday evening's State of the City event where Mayor Richards outlined where he sees Rochester as being, and where he wants to take us.  Basically, free publicity for his upcoming campaign.  But imagine my surprise when reading reports of this event, when I found references to something the mayor is calling citizens budgeting.  While I don't have all the details, it looks to me like the mayor has been reading my platform.  If you look at my platform you'll see that I've been advocating a process called participatory budgeting, as well as being on record for this during my campaign last year as well.  So just in case the mayor tries to implement this before he loses to Alex White in November, I thought I'd make sure he fully understands the process so that he gets it right the first time.


First, some history.  Participatory budgeting, or PB for short, was first introduced in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989 during the administration of  Workers' Party mayor, Olivio Dutra.  This experiment in radical democracy turned over a large percentage of the city budget, 21% at its height, to the general population for funding of community projects.  In this city of extreme poverty and inequality, giving budgeting power to the people gave them an actual role in governance which most had never seen before.  And it became much easier for the will of the People to take precedence over the few.  Since the introduction of PB, water access while only 75% in 1988 has become nearly universal.  The number of schools has quadrupled.  And while it does not directly deal with issues of unemployment, by increasing public services, the playing field is leveled on behalf of the poor, increasing their economic stability.

Since introduction in Brazil, PB has spread internationally, with several North American cities introducing it to various degrees.  Several councilmembers in New York City and Chicago use their discretionary funds for district PB processes.  And the City of Vallejo in California has implemented a city-wide process which distributes $3 million in local revenues collected through a sales tax.

So what could PB look like in Rochester? The basic outline for the process is 1) Community identifies spending priorities and select budget delegates, 2) Budget delegates develop specific spending proposals, with help from experts, 3) Communities vote on which proposals to fund, and 4) The city implements the top proposals.  I'd personally prefer to see PB developed on the neighborhood level in tandem with my proposal for neighborhood councils.  It could also be city-wide.  While the mayor's proposal focuses on crime reduction, a true PB process would not limit the scope of community members' projects.  We would likely see the funding of new community gardens, community centers, libraries, schools, health clinics, art production, youth recreation programs, etc.  Diverting just 1% of Rochester's 2012-13 budget would have given the community nearly $5 million to distribute.  And instead of the annual Chicken Little speech at the Voice of the Citizen that is attended by a handful of residents, the City administration would have clear guidelines from the community on spending priorities across the board.

So do I have your attention now?  If this process looks like something you'd support but you need more information, make sure to check out the websites of the Participatory Budgeting Project & PB Vallejo.  And if you've made your decision and want City officials that introduced the idea to Rochester in the first place, make sure to get involved in this year's Green Rochester campaign.  Vote Row F.

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commented 2013-05-09 08:41:15 -0400 · Flag
In the past the Greens have discussed and started to put to paper the idea that compliments this approach. The idea is to redesign the City districts to better reflect grass roots democracy. This would mean dividing the various neighborhoods into smaller districts that would address structural and governing process details while having collective decision-making using consensus to make funding decisions and plans related to all their needs—ie mental health, education, recreation, economic development, housing etc. One of the main reason for this approach is that grass roots democracy is a greater motivator for residents to participate and by doing so to also be accountable for decisions made. This also encourages awareness, diversity, creativity and shifts power to the people as they say. The participatory budget plan would compliment this major change. I have participated in the budget process the Mayor did last year which sounds somewhat familiar with what he did this year. The problem is that he does confine it to more narrow application and the other problem is that it is most often geared to address what to reduce, resulting in fewer recreation services, library services and corporate development.

GoGreen. Bonnie