Sacramentans could soon have more of a say over how they’d like the city to spend taxpayer dollars, after City Council decided on Tuesday they would put money from the city’s general fund into a pilot project for participatory budgeting.
The project would allow community members to decide how they’d like to spend $1 million, far short of the $15 million proposed by the city’s Measure U committee, which originally suggested a participatory budgeting process with citizen control last year.
“I think the $1 million proposed is a start, but it only puts us at giving $2 per person in a city of half a million people,” Flojaune Cofer, chair of the Measure U Advisory Committee, told the council on Tuesday. “I really urge you to continue this conversation and think about increasing your investment to really get closer to those numbers that I think are much more worthy of what Sacramentans in earnest have asked us for.”
The Measure U committee had recommended the city allocate $15 million for the community to have control over for a period of years because they said that meant the city would be making good on its original Measure U promise of helping underserved communities.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the pilot should start with a smaller dollar amount of the city’s $1.3 billion budget and possibly increase year after year. Steinberg had originally suggested last summer that $5 million be used for participatory budgeting.
“I hope $1 million is just a start, and I’m hopeful and optimistic,” Steinberg said. “This is the first time.”
Councilmember Jeff Harris expressed some doubts in the process, saying budgeting was a job for council members and elected officials.
“We live in a representative democracy. Fundamentally, our jobs as councilmembers is to make decisions for our constituents, and principally that’s around the budget,” Harris said. “In fact, that’s why in our charter it says we can’t delegate that responsibility, it is our prime responsibility.”
He said he would want any citizens who took part in the participatory budgeting pilot be required to read the city’s budget handbook.
A handful of other cities around the country — including Seattle and Vallejo — currently have part of their budget set aside for participatory budgeting.But the amount of money the community has control over varies widely depending on the city — Seattle’s budget is $30 million, while Bloomington, Indiana’s is $15,000.
A staff report from City Manager Howard Chan’s office shows that the average amount allocated per resident in the 11 cities that currently have a participatory budgeting process is about $7.41 per resident. If Sacramento followed this average, it would allot $3.8 million.
The report also found that cities allocated on average about 0.4% of their overall budget to this process — that equates to about $2.6 million for Sacramento.
Shari Davis of the Participatory Budgeting Project, suggests that that cities should allocate about $15 to $25 per resident in order for the process to have the most impact and for community members to want to participate in the process.
Davis, whose group advises cities on starting a participatory budgeting process, said cities have to allow for residents to impact change.
“The danger in having a pot that’s small is that it becomes trivial,” Davis said of the amount of money in the community budget. “It becomes an exercise that doesn’t result in actual community control that is effective and efficient.”
She adds that when the amount allocated per city resident becomes too small, the effort people have to make to impact change becomes unequal.
“This means making sure people who are closest to these challenges are in a position where they can engineer solutions well,” she said.
Councilmember Katie Valenzuela said she felt the community knew best where budget priorities should be. She hoped the pilot could give councilmembers and those who participate a good sense of how it could work in the future with a larger budget.
“Particularly in this pandemic, there’s so much need out there when it comes to small businesses, support that our youth need, having this process would really help ensure that we allocate at least some portion of money to the highest priority items in the community,” Valenzuela said.
Debra Oto-Kent, another member of the city’s Measure U Advisory Committee, said she was glad to see the city moving in the direction of trying out participatory budgeting, even if it was for a smaller amount than her group initially asked for.
“We’ve asked for 15 million, we’ve asked for 5 million,” Oto-Kent said. “We have been trying to learn from other cities, there are other cities who have started with a million dollars and increased after that.”
The Committee hopes the community can have a role in allocating money towards items like youth services and workforce development.
Davis of the Participatory Budget Project said she was hopeful that Sacramento could build to a larger amount of money over time.
“Sacramento is on the verge of making some great steps towards Participatory Budgeting,” Davis said, adding that even if the council is starting small, “It creates an opportunity for capacity building which is valuable.”
The City Council plans to officially vote on allocating the $1 million for participatory budgeting next week. If it passes, residents could have the ability to decide where this money goes for next year’s budget, which is finalized over the summer.
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