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Participatory Budgeting Cleveland wants public involved in decisions about spending of American Rescue Act funds

PHOTO BY TAURUS KINGS PHOTOGRAPHY

Members of the Participatory Budgeting Cleveland Team:  Gwen Garth, Trevor Pollack, Laylah Allen, Molly Martin, Austin Davis, Robin Brown, Loh, Daniel Ortiz, Angelique Salizan, Kayla Knight, Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez, and Jonathan Welle.

Participatory Budgeting Cleveland wants public involved in decisions about spending of American Rescue Act funds

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, April 2022)         Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide to spend part of a public budget. Residents play a role in the scrutiny and monitoring of the process. Participative budgeting shares the responsibility of creating a city’s budget with the community to expand civic engagement, develop new community leaders, build community, and make public spending more equitable. 

     Participatory budgeting started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in response to the rapid growth and inability to provide services to its city residents. In 1989, a newly elected Workers Party inverted the decision-making process so that citizens decided how a portion of the budget gets spent. By 1997, sewer and water connections went up from 75 percent to 98 percent; health and education budgets increased from 13 percent to 40 percent; the number of schools quadrupled, and road building in poor neighborhoods increased five-fold. Participation in budgeting meetings grew from fewer than 1,000 people per year in 1990 to about 40,000 in 1999, according to the World Resource Institute, a global research non-profit organization established in 1982 with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

     A voter-approved amendment to the New York City Charter in 2018 created a new Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) charged with designing and implementing a citywide Participatory Budgeting process. CEC allows residents a role in local spending decisions and inspires increased transparency in local government. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first PB occurred in 2014–2015, with $528,000 allocated towards six projects: planting one hundred healthy trees, twenty laptops for a community center, bilingual books for children learning English, a public bathroom in Central Square, bike report stations, and free public Wi-Fi in six outdoor locations.

     In the summer of 2021, the City of Cleveland launched a website to solicit ideas from residents on ways to spend $511.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). ARPA provides economic assistance for American workers, families, small businesses, and industries. Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE), a grassroots coalition of individuals and groups, asked the city to set aside $30.8 million of ARPA funding to spend in direct consultation with the residents of Cleveland through participatory budgeting practices. Participatory Budgeting Cleveland came up with $30.8 million based on the poverty rate of Cleveland, which is 30.8%, the highest poverty rate of any big city in the United States. 

     During the initial advocacy stage, PB CLE held a series of house parties across the city to brainstorm, develop, and submit policy suggestions. People brainstormed ideas ranging from funds for a restorative justice program in the criminal legal system to housing cooperatives and direct cash payments to residents. The public nominated and then voted on which projects they would like to see funded.

     Last month, the PB CLE coalition held a Zoom meeting to discuss strategies to bring participatory budgeting to Cleveland. Jennifer Lumpkin, assisting in the process as a grassroots organizer, hosted the Zoom meeting and said the mission of PB CLE is to empower residents to get involved in how to spend public funds.

     “While we work with the mayor and city council, we want to empower residents to decide where to spend public dollars,” said Lumpkin.

     Following a breakout session midway through the meeting, Joe Gaston, a resident of Cleveland, felt that social issues such as mental health and poverty need to be a priority. Millions of dollars are pumped into the system every year. Yet those dollars do not help the most vulnerable residents. The money usually benefits home and business owners, he said. 

     “There is no real priority in addressing homelessness. I have not heard talk about increasing addiction services,” said Gaston. “The ideas we have tend to be lofty. I am shocked that we have not addressed our social ills. I have a problem with us ignoring these issues.”

     There are no provisions for participatory budgeting or a commitment to use ARPA funds despite PB CLE having met Mayor Bibb and City Council members to discuss the issue. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but whether PB CLE will impact the 2022 budget remains uncertain. PB CLE meets every week with senior members of the Bibb administration to explore the process and is asking City Council to go public with their endorsement. A steering committee will soon release an implementation guide to show details on how PB could work in Cleveland. Organizers are hopeful that ongoing meetings and conversations will lead to resident input with spending decisions. Once the ARAP funds are gone, PB CLE may need to rely on the mayor and City Council to budget for participatory budgeting practices.

     Despite reservations, Cleveland City Council Finance, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee voted 7-2 in favor of the $1.8 billion annual budget proposed by Mayor Bibb. The budget includes a 25% increase from $2.7 million to $3.6 million in the Office of the Mayor. Top officials and staff members will earn between $140,000 and $190,000 a year under the new budget. The Community Police Commission budget is $2.1 million, or 75% more than last year. That increase includes more than $1 million for community grants, as required by Issue 24. The Cleveland Division of Police was increased by 6% to $223 million.

     Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy was one of two City Council members that voted against the budget. Ward 16 stretches from the City of Lakewood border near W117th Street to the City of Brook Park. Kazy has been in office since 2015.

     “There were several things that I do not agree with regarding the budget,” Kazy said in an email reply to the Plain Press. “The biggest is the $62 million revenue expenditure shortfall and uncertainty of businesses asking for income tax revenue back because of the state legislation for people who worked from home. Plus, the fact that 32 union contracts need ratifying this year. The numbers do not add up.” 

     The revenue shortfall involves a bill passed by The Ohio House last year that allows people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic to seek refunds for income taxes they paid to the cities where their offices are. House Bill 157 gives commuters the option to file for a local tax return for their home city if working remotely outside the boundaries of Cleveland. The Greater Ohio Policy Center, which advocates for investments in cities and towns, estimated in September 2020 that Ohio six largest cities got 88% of their funding from income taxes and could lose $306 million if commuter revenue disappeared. 

     Ward 8 Cleveland City Councilman Michael D. Polensek, who has served the Collinwood neighborhood consecutively since 1978, also voted against the budget.

     “We should not be spending money like a drunken Russian sailor,” said Polensek. “I have been around long enough to know that we have to be mindful of expenses. I represent people that cannot afford to pay their property taxes. Why are we paying city executives $190,000 a year and lifeguards $10 an hour?”

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