Getting the public involved in how tax dollars are spent doesn’t sound too revolutionary.
But two people who embrace the concept traveled from New York City to Common Council Chambers on Monday to explain how to involve citizens in the process of deciding how to spend public money.
In New York City, eight out of 51 City Council members are using “participatory budgeting,” in which constituents brainstorm how to spend capital funds allocated to their district, and vote on which projects should be funded.
The benefits include more community participation, a democratic way of distributing what is derided as pork barrel spending and fostering an awareness among citizens about the needs in other parts of a district, speakers said.
Some citizens, cynical that anyone in government will listen to them, might be persuaded to attend a community meeting when real money is at stake, and if they think they can influence how that money is spent, presenters said.
“You have a direct say in what government is going to do for you,” said New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito.
While seven Council members listened to Mark-Viverito and Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, the scale of the two cities’ budgets are vastly different, and if duplicated in Buffalo, the effort would likely be done differently.
In New York City, Council members use participatory budgeting to allocate part of the funding they receive for capital projects.
Mark-Viverito’s district receives about $10 million in capital funding, and she uses participatory budgeting to allocate $2 million, she said.
She represents about 165,000 people, and 1,632 people were involved in the capital budgeting process, she said.
In Buffalo, Common Council members do not receive a direct allocation for capital spending. They receive about $120,000 in discretionary spending and typically allocate it to nonprofit organizations.
Lerner warned that engaging the district and people who aren’t familiar with how government works is more work than the typical process, but it leads to better decisions because people in the community who know the needs of their neighborhood are involved.
Participatory budgeting started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has been used in Chicago and Toronto.
Monday’s presentation was promoted by the Coalition for Economic Justice, a progressive organization. However, participatory budgeting has found fans on both sides of the aisle.
In New York City, where there are just four Republican Council members, two have committed to the process.
Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto invited Lerner and Mark-Viverito to give the presentation and said he thought several Council members might try it to allocate their discretionary spending.
North Council Member Joseph Golombek said he already practices much of what was discussed by including input from the Good Neighbor Planning Alliance in Black Rock-Riverside in making capital project requests to the city’s Citizens Planning Council, which makes recommendations on what should be in the city’s capital budget.