A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Widening Our Civic Responsibility 

Participatory Budgeting Comes To The Valley

By Tola Brennan

If you give money to the government, shouldn’t you have a say in where it goes?

In communities across the globe, an upstart process called Participatory Budgeting is proving that people can have a voice that penetrates into the daily operations of government.

Participatory Budgeting, or PB as it’s usually referred to, is a process for spending public funds that invites community participation at every step. In what is usually a nine-month process, volunteers start by asking residents what can be done to improve their community in a phase called “idea collection.”

Those ideas are then refined and often sent to local governmental agencies for review and estimates on implementation. When returned, the community votes on the final budget over a period of about a week. The whole process is overseen by a steering committee made up of community members.

Besides immediacy and proximity, PB as a form of democratic participation is different from voting for representatives by being far more inclusive. All members of a community, from the age of 14 up, get involved, helping to nurture new youth leaders into existence.

“I think we’re in a unique time in history where now more than ever our young leaders are incredibly important,” said Shari Davis, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Participatory Budgeting Project, which she joined after she helped found the City of Boston’s Division of Youth Engagement and Employment, which became the country’s first youth-focused PB process. “Instead of thinking about young people as future leaders,” said Davis, “ We need to think about young people as leaders now.”

The PBP provides technical support for communities who want to try Participatory Budgeting, which got its start as a movement in Brazil in the 1980s at a time of great tension and unrest between poor communities and local government. The process worked so well that it spread across Latin America, and from there the world.

It was introduced in the United States in 2009 and spread to New York City in 2011, where it’s growing exponentially under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to the point where each City Council member there now gets up to $1 million each year for participatory budgeting involving their communities, and next fall PB will be rolled out to all of NYC’s 400 public schools.

In Buffalo, unlike New York City, PB has had to come from outside the system. Brian Borncamp, an organizer with the Clear Air Coalition, started working on Participatory Budgeting in 2013 when it was first suggested by a colleague. For three years they fought an uncooperative mayor until finally the city’s Common Council threatened a budget veto if PB wasn’t included after a grassroots effort bought 150 community members to city hall in protest.

Buffalo is an unusual case in that PB came through ongoing advocacy and grassroots pressure, not the political will of already elected representatives. As a result, much of the first few years of its rollout was taken up educating community members on the process, and many of the people who advocated for PB became fatigued by the time it actually arrived.

But others stepped in, and Buffalo set up a steering committee for an original $150,000 allotment to be budgeted through community participation. Winning projects included funding for a farmer’s market and upgrades to the kitchen at a community center that allowed for cooking classes. However, due to the mayor’s opposition, participatory budgeting disappeared from Buffalo’s 2017 budget.

Borncamp now acknowledges that while the tangible results from Buffalo can be demoralizing, he felt what was at play included a deeper level of cultural shift to better prioritize more money for communities and services, along with a buildup of “power in a new way outside traditional political machines.”

He also noted how Buffalo’s first budget hearing has since moved forward a half year to January.

Participatory Budgeting will make its debut in the Hudson Valley this June thanks to Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, whose budget for next year already includes an allotment estimated at around $30,000 that will come from profits made through Kingston’s new parking meter system.

As soon as Noble took office two years ago, he set about bringing the public closer to the budgeting process, launching a public forum each August and sending out online surveys to evaluate priority areas. Still, it didn’t feel like enough.

“After doing that for two full budget cycles, we said we think that there’s more that we can do,” said Noble. After learning about PB while attending a conference alongside New York City Council members, he recalled thinking, “if it works in the city, couldn’t it work here? We have a pretty excited community when it comes to trying new stuff.”

Participatory Budgeting is also part of the platform of newly-formed advocacy group Rise Up Kingston. Co-founder Callie Jayne sees PB as just one part of uplifting people from neighborhoods that aren’t usually well represented. She’s excited about the mayor’s efforts, but worries that without proactive outreach, only people with affluence will actually participate.

“With any participatory budgeting or any type of participatory model it’s about who’s actually participating,” Jayne said, noting her intent to utilize Rise Up Kingston to do community engagement around PB to ensure that people from all walks of life get a say. “The most impacted people can come together with the ideas on how to spend that money that could really benefit the community,” she said.

Back in the City, Jacinta Ojevwe—a high school senior in the Bronx—came across an application for a PB fellowship program last summer that sends two youth delegates out to every city district that does PB.  At first, when she would ask people at bus stops and train stations what they’d do with a million dollars, many just ignored her. Then she remembered how her Nigerian parents would tell her not to talk to strangers, that they must be scammers.

“Maybe these people got the same advice my parents gave me,” Ojevwe thought. “I reworded my sentence and held a different demeanor that I thought would make me stop on the street. With that I was able to connect with people more and let them understand that I know where they’re coming from… There’s a lot of people losing faith in government.”

She’s since learned that much of her job, advocating for responsible participation in a community’s budgeting processes, is about reassuring people that there IS a democratic process already in place. The key is using it.

Ilana Cohen, a senior at a Manhattan high school, says she first discovered PB as an intern for District 39 City Council member Brad Lander three years ago.

“I really wanted to get engaged on a local level. PB gives power to the people in a way that I don’t know of with any other process… It’s level of inclusivity and equity is something that really attracted me to the process.”

Inspired by her initial experiences with participatory budgeting, Cohen went on to found PB Youth two years ago, a group that offers trainings and educates young people about the PB process in the City and beyond.

“Activism and engagement have no age limit even if the voting age is 18,” said Cohen. “There are basic forms of civic education that come across in PB that we don’t have ingrained in our public school curricula.”

PB not only fills a void, it naturally become something like a revolution in civic participation. “We have all the resources that we need as a city to provide everyone with an amazing quality of life,” Borncamp points out, “but we don’t have an appropriate distribution system.”

And for many, PB is exactly that. Davis calls it an “essential component of healthy communities.” In places like New York, that awareness has blossomed, but in places like Buffalo, PB threatens an existing system, and is threatened by those used to doing all a municipality’s or community’s budgeting on their own.

Everywhere, as the movement grows both in the United States and elsewhere, including its land of origin throughout Latin America, some are starting to ask when a next step will be reached when more than just token parts of a larger budget can be entrusted to those who pay for it.

But if there are doubts about why adoption of PB faces opposition, remember the roots. Participatory Budgeting was born in the margins as a tool of the unheard as a means for healing from the ills inflicted by Brazil’s military dictatorship. It should be a little scary for those in power because PB creates empowered people.

Let that be just another reason to try it.