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Hot Button: Participatory budgeting


Participatory budgeting, or PB as it’s popularly known, is a democratic process in which citizens directly decide how to spend a portion of their city’s budget. It allows those outside the walls of City Hall to have real decision-making power by identifying, developing, and prioritizing how their tax dollars are spent.

This innovative process, started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, over twenty-five years ago, has been used to facilitate real change with real money in over 1,500 municipalities worldwide. It garnered attention in the United States when city officials in Vallejo, California, successfully implemented the first-ever citywide process as a way to regain the trust of its residents after the city filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Even more recently, two months ago, in New York City, twenty-four council districts participated in the process, putting their constituents in control of  $25 million of the city’s budget. The movement continues to gain momentum with each passing budgetary cycle, and there is no reason to believe that it will stop anytime soon.

Participatory budgeting also forces municipalities to test their assumptions about what the priorities are at the neighborhood level. Instead of spending public dollars on well-intentioned but misguided efforts and initiatives, PB allows the community to decide that maybe basketball courts need better lighting, or more after-school programming is necessary, or redesigned roadways should include protected bike lanes. The community knows best what it needs.

Natasha Soto, chairperson of Buffalo’s PB committee and community organizer for the Clean Air Coalition, describes some of the history of PB in Buffalo: “When Clean Air first found out about participatory budgeting and all of its benefits, we started to inform our members, host teach-ins, and meet with elected officials. That was over four years ago. In July of 2014, the Common Council formed a committee to research whether or not the process could be implemented here in Buffalo. There were over thirty community groups that came together from every councilmanic district. As a result of this work, earlier this year, the PB Committee released a report in which recommendations for how a citywide PB process might work were clearly outlined. In addition, there was a special hearing of the Finance Committee, where residents came out and enthusiastically voiced their support for a PB process. Each event had over 100 residents, from every corner of the city.”

Locally, participatory budgeting represents the highest aspirations of New Buffalo. Many here reject participating in pay-to-play politics and prefer transparency in the name of accountability, exemplifying what it is to live in a place where all lives matter equally, and economic opportunity and true prosperity are available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. As New York Times columnist Gina Bellafante recently wrote, “The greatest value of participatory budgeting has been as a means of access to local stewardship and government more generally by those, including the formerly incarcerated and the undocumented, who have otherwise felt disenfranchised or denied.”
The time is now: the People’s Budget awaits.




Harper S.E. Bishop is a community activist, photographer, and writer.


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