Sacramento might have an opportunity to give some residents more say in how some of its budget is spent.
But with money tight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, some are debating how much of the city’s revenue citizens could be allowed to oversee.
The Measure U Community Advisory Committee, a group that offers City Council recommendations for how to spend a large pool of sales tax revenue, is proposing that a certain amount be put toward “participatory budgeting.”
Specifically, Committee members are asking for $15 million for residents from underserved neighborhoods to decide how to use, as they think it will help fulfill the goal of redirecting Measure U dollars to programs and resources in low-income communities.
What Is Participatory Budgeting?
Participatory budgeting isn’t a new concept — there are a number of cities across the country that utilize this type of budgeting in some way.
New York City is one of the largest cities that has put aside money for it. In California, Oakland, San Francisco and Vallejo all have part of the city’s money dedicated towards participatory budgets. It’s a way cities can allow community members to have more control over some amount of policy.
During a Measure U committee meeting on Monday, commissioner Debra Oto-Kent, who introduced the idea, said participatory budgeting has been used in other cities to better engage people who aren’t always represented in policy discussions.
“Folks that don’t normally come around the table, it is disproportionately folks of color, youth, and a different demographic that normally engages,” Debra Oto-Kent said.
How Much Will Sacramento Invest In Participatory Budgeting?
The Measure U committee is asking for $15 million, which would be approximately 20 percent of the Measure U sales tax revenue before the coronavirus.
The Committee views this $15 million as just a start, though; eventually, they would like half of the amount brought in from the city’s Measure U sales tax increase, which voters approved in 2018. That amount was estimated at approximately $90-$100 million before the pandemic.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg has acknowledged the committee’s desire for participatory budgeting, but has proposed $5 million as a starting point.
Members acknowledge that with the COVID-19 pandemic having brought sales tax revenue down across the city, the Measure U budget may be impacted in ways that were not previously predicted. But because the pandemic has impacted sales tax revenue, some commissioners point out that certain communities now need more help than others.
“It is important to recognize the COVID context. Neighborhoods and disenfranchised communities are feeling even more disempowered as a result of the COVID crisis,” commissioner Jessie Ryan said.
Some experts say that in order for participatory budgeting to be impactful, the amount allocated for budgeting needs to break down to about $13 to $22 per resident. Shari Davis, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project in Oakland, said any amount less than that could lead to disengagement.
“It’s not only going to be trivial, it’s not going to be worth the amount of time that a single parent or someone with several barriers would put into contributing to a process like this. And that could create a circumstance of more harm than the opportunity for folks to thrive,” Davis said.
Who Is Doing This Now?
In Oakland, the city put aside $780,000 of federal money to allow low- and moderate-income residents of certain districts to decide how they wanted to spend. The city of Vallejo has been doing participatory budgeting since 2013; in its first year, residents voted to spend most of the $2 million allocated towards fixing potholes.
New York City has put $210 million of its budget into participatory budgeting, but Davis says that, overall, it doesn’t need to be a lot of money to make people want to participate. She noted that in Arizona, a school district put aside $55,000 of their budget for students to control, and the program has helped to engage students.
“When the pandemic hit, Phoenix Union High School District was best positioned to meet the needs of their students, because they had built deep engagement infrastructure through participatory budgeting that allowed them to mobilize resources very quickly in response to student and family needs,” Davis said. “That’s some of the participatory budget spillover effect that happens when you build infrastructure and civic muscle that centers equity.”
What’s Next For Sacramento?
This would be Sacramento’s first participatory budgeting effort.
The Measure U committee put forward a letter on Monday requesting that City Council allocate the $15 million, and that they also make the citizens’ budgeting suggestions binding.
“We need to enact this with a meaningful allocation that really restores faith in the community that Measure U dollars are going to be spent to lift up underserved communities that were promised through Measure U,” commissioner Ryan said.
The committee is looking to begin outreach, and to have a commitment from City Council members regarding the amount of money by the end of the summer.
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