Participatory Budgeting Cleveland presents its 2022 Action Plan
by Bruce Checefsky
Plain Press, May 2022 Molly Martin took the microphone to address Cleveland City Council on the need for Participatory Budgeting using The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funding. In her three-minute talk, Martin, a member of the PB CLE (Participatory Budgeting Cleveland), a coalition of individuals and groups focused on bringing the people of Cleveland into the budgeting process, called upon Cleveland to be extremely deliberate in the distribution of ARPA funding.
“PB CLE is not asking for allocation towards a non-profit or one issue. We are asking about a deliberate process that involves residents involving decisions that affect their lives,” said Martin.
“It is painful to witness so much cynicism around civic engagement in Cleveland. Fifteen percent of Cleveland residents voted for the mayor this past election.”
Across the seventeen city council wards, one in four residents voted for their council member, she mentioned. The root cause of the apathy is the failure to include the public in decision-making that impacts their lives. For Martin and members of PB CLE, people feel disconnected and disempowered. They don’t feel like their voices matter. Participatory budgeting is the most fundamental lesson of community engagement.
“Those closest to a problem should be involved in solving it,” she said. “Our budget is a moral document for this city.”
Signed into law on March 11, 2021, The American rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides $350 billion in funding for state and local governments. The City of Cleveland was awarded the eighth highest of any city nationwide at $511 in ARPA funds.
In December 2021, Cleveland City Council approved outgoing Mayor Frank Jackson’s spending allocations for much of the first portion of funding. Allocation of funds includes $108M for revenue loss recovery to balance the 2022 Budget and $20M for Broadband access. A total of $26M for Public Safety Equipment and supplies; $5M for the Cleveland Food Bank; $80M for Community and Economic Development; $3M to Allen Estates housing development; $2M to Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Service (NEON); $8M to redevelop the former apartments at 9410 Hough Avenue; $2M to Hitchcock Center for Women; $15M for housing demolition, and $17M for the Lead Safe Home Fund, a first-of-its-kind public, and private partnership to make Cleveland homes lead-safe.
Mayor Bibb’s Transition Report includes recommendations to provide funding to stabilize education, specifically PRE4CLE and the Say Yes Scholarship fund. The report recommends investment funds for the arts in Cleveland’s neighborhoods, community improvement districts, and safe and affordable housing to stabilize, respond, and recover from the pandemic. The participatory Budgeting Process was in the plan. Some people think PB is not participatory enough, while others feel it goes too far.
“Participatory budgeting can feel a lot like democracy,” said Liza Featherstone in a recently published article in Shelterforce, an independent, non-academic publication covering community development, affordable housing, and neighborhood stabilization. Featherstone is the author of Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation.
“PB offers a glimpse of how a more civically engaged society might work,” she said. “But it’s also a distraction from the actual mechanisms of power and can reinforce or even worsen existing
Implementing participatory budgeting requires careful consideration. How to collect the preferences of community members into an actionable project is the goal. In March, PB CLE released a 52-page document titled Participatory Budgeting Cleveland: 2022 Action Plan. Council members received a copy of the report before the City Council meeting. PB CLE is asking for $30.8 million, representing the 30.8% of people living in poverty.
PB CLE proposes dividing the decisions on allocation of the $30.8 million across two sets of public meetings. The first cycle target line would start in summer 2022, with voting in spring 2023, with $10.8M being allocated. A second cycle would begin in summer 2023, with voting in summer 2024, with the remaining $20M being allocated. Funds are divided into 17 smaller funds, weighted based on the percent of Cleveland’s population living in poverty. For example, Ward 5, which has the highest poverty rate at 9.93%, would get $3.06M, while Ward 17, with poverty at 3.64%, would receive $1.12M.
Residents submit ideas for their ward or submit a city-wide idea that appears on the ballot, while participation inequalities are likely, acknowledges the report.
A second option evenly splits $30.8 million into 17 smaller funds. Historically disinvested neighborhoods get the same funding as advanced neighborhoods. Other options include one city-wide founding pool or providing funds to thirty-four city neighborhoods.
The administrative cost of $489,000 per year, or 3.1% of the annual budget includes a full-time PB Program Manager at $84,000/year plus a Non-profit Outreach Manager at $84,000/year. Consultant for the pilot program is $30,000 a year and 21 Steering Committee Members at $8,000 a year. Budget delegates, technology, IT Developer, marketing, and special events for the public to participate make up the total. Martin believes the non-profit and philanthropy community can provide funding to cover the costs. If not, PB CLE hopes to solicit the aid of the City Council.
“We would like to save as much as the money for fundable projects,” she added, about paying personnel to run the program from the $30.8M budget. “But if it is a matter of functionality, we hope to work with the City Council to fill that need.”
Once funding and administrative positions fill, PB CLE plans to finalize rules for the process by creating a rulebook. Voting on projects could start as young as age 14, circumventing the issue of low voter turnout in the general election.
“There is flexibility to allow people to vote, including online voting. Collection dates of cast votes can be a week-long, not just one day,” explained Martin. “The steering committee and budget delegates have a relationship with the community furthering the possibility of increasing participation. I hope we surpass the number of people showing up to vote in each ward election. That would be a win for us.”
Long-time Ward 8 Councilman Michael Polensek, chair of the Public Safety Committee responsible for the oversight of the Cleveland Police and Fire Departments and the Emergency Medical Service, which represents more than 60% of the city’s annual $1.8M budget, said pension funds are a financial priority.
“Pension funds were hit hard during the last two years of the pandemic. We have to put money into them. United Way needs additional money. We have increased costs due to inflation. All of the bargaining units want a pay increase. We have plenty of issues to solve and requests for money,” said Polensek. “The mayor has not proposed anything to the City Council about PB CLE. He sees what’s coming down the pike. We better not be pennywise but pound foolish.”
First-term Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer strongly supports PB CLE, adding, “Participatory budgeting gives residents a voice in how critical dollars get spent. It’s a way to rebuild trust with the public.”
PB CLE is organizing a call to action zoom meeting for Sunday, May 15, from 2:30 – 4:30 PM. Link to their website for information at https://www.pbcle.com.