Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE) to launch budget recommendations
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, August 2021) Town meetings were first established in the earliest New England settlements as a form of direct democracy in which most or all members of a community come together to discuss policies, laws, and budgets for their community. The first town meeting was held almost 150 years before the United States declared its independence from Britain. Back then, everyone from the community could attend, but only male church members were allowed to vote. Over time, the women’s suffrage movement changed the voting rights to include women.
Organizers with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) and Policy Matters Ohio, as well as individual advocates and neighborhood groups, have been sponsoring house parties, a smaller version of the town meetings, where people can contribute their thoughts on what needs attention and funding in Cleveland. That could include public transit, housing, Internet access or a variety of other needs. The grassroots coalition launched Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE), a campaign to raise resident input on use of American Rescue Plan Act recovery funding.
Over 150 Cleveland residents attended one of 19 house meetings during the month of May to voice how they think the City of Cleveland should spend part of the $512 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. Residents raised the need for alternatives to policing, community solar projects, resident-led community education around lead poisoning, and improving internet access in internet dead zones. The house meetings are part of a larger strategy to win a people’s budget in Cleveland.
“The house parties are a tool outside of voting to build democracy between elections by bringing residents together to talk about what they think the community needs are,” said Molly Martin, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE) will eventually have a website to show the ideas of citizens participating in the conversation.
PB CLE has asked City officials to incorporate residents’ voices, visions, and decisions in determining how to spend $30.8 million of $512 million in federal recovery funds through participatory budgeting. That number represents the percentage (30.8%) of Cleveland residents living in poverty.
A participatory budget is an innovative policy-making tool that directly involves citizens in the allocation of municipal funds. Participatory institutions aim to enhance governance, information sharing, and the responsiveness of political agents to citizens, leading to fiscal accountability and efficiency.
PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure that helped reduce child mortality by nearly 20%. Since then, PB has spread to over 7,000 cities around the world, and has been used to decide budgets from states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions. The New York Times calls PB “revolutionary civics in action” by deepening democracy, building stronger communities, and creating a more equitable distribution of public resources.
Although PB holds a great deal of promise, there are limitations to the process according to some experts including limited participation of the marginalized. For some residents, especially the very poor, participation is difficult given the time and resource commitments required. PB also requires a strong commitment from the government, especially the mayor. Without the government’s support, expectations set by the PB process are rarely met.
Mayor Frank Jackson has proposed spending $371.4 million in 2021 on police, firefighters, and public safety, by far the city’s largest budget item and more than half its general fund budget. The money also could help the city expand development strategies to so-called “middle neighborhoods” that exist between the hardest-hit communities and hot real estate markets, Jackson said.
He also outlined a planned approach to neighborhood development in a recent news conference, which includes financing assistance, demolition, rehabilitation, and new housing construction, but did not offer any details. The city receives the first half of its $511.7 million American Rescue Plan this year. It will be up to Cleveland’s next mayor to spend the second half of the funds, which are slated to arrive in 2022.
Mayoral candidate Ross DiBello publicly supports the PB Cleveland initiative.
“I actually believe the entire amount of the Federal Recovery funds, as well as all of our municipal income and property taxes, should be subject to some form of participatory budgeting and full dissemination. Establishment politicians have long neglected our opinions on how our own dollars should be utilized,” he said by email. “If elected Mayor, with $512 million, I would fight for grants to small neighborhood businesses, grants to abate lead poisoned homes, wire the entire city for WiFi including purchasing more equipment and training, fund a public bank, public transportation, affordable housing, provide more beds for those suffering from mental health issues and homelessness, recycling, and designate some funds to the legal and public health departments.”
DiBello would fight against sending any of the recovery funds towards suburban or out-of-state financial interests. From his point of view, the city needs to re-invest in the public good and a fair economy.
“Handouts and tax abatements have been inequitably distributed and led us into great poverty and inadequate city services,” he said.
The over 150 Cleveland residents who attended house meetings helped develop dozens of policy ideas that will be posted on webpage through Refund Cleveland, where thousands of Clevelanders will be able to vote this summer on the ideas they want to see funded to benefit their communities.
Ideas include broadband access and fiber options to improve internet dead zones, grant funding to support community-owned cooperatives/social enterprises, lead abatement support / resident-led community education around lead poisoning, policing alternatives: crisis response resources, funding for affordable housing development, and community solar projects.
Robin Brown, Founder, Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead, and PB CLE strategist, has organized and attended several house parties over the past few months. Brown founded Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead after her daughter, Charmayne, was poisoned in 1999, at age 4.
“We’ve been living in our communities for so long that we know what it takes to create positive change,” Brown said. “We can’t wait for others to help us so we’re doing it on our own.”
PB CLE is a process of conversations that has taken place in the communities not at City Hall, according to her. House parties were arranged to accommodate people with their busy schedules. For her house party, Brown had ten people. They broke out into subgroups and brainstormed. There were so many good ideas it was almost overwhelming.
“No one is paying attention to the people,” said Brown referring to city officials including local councilpersons and Mayor Jackson. “I’ve been working with lead poisoning initiates for twenty-one years and have yet to see anything done about it. We have to change our democracy.”
The grassroots organization continues to meet very Monday and Wednesday to share ideas and compare notes among house party groups, with no one left out of the process. Brown said organizers are looking for the participatory budget to become a generational budget.
“The people aren’t being listened too,” she stressed. “We know that many politicians prefer money and power over people. People are first in my view.”
Zack Reed, a mayoral candidate, and a former Cleveland City Councilman, would like to see PB CLE work with the entire $512 million, not just a percentage of it. Citizens have a right to determine how and where the money gets used, he said, with poverty and crime at the top of his list. Going into the wards and listening is essential to understanding what people need.
“Why should members of city council and the mayor have full discretion on how the funds are used? The federal government requires public discussion whenever money is involved. Why does the mayor think he’s different?”
Reed wants more community meetings. Transparency during the process of allocation and distribution is needed, with small businesses and minority businesses that were hit the hardest during COVID-19 getting a percentage of the funds to support them.
“The entire country was shut down for a year, but the federal government stayed opened,” he said. “We need to help people get back on their feet.”