What if communities directly facing these challenges could directly shape the solutions? That is the premise of participatory budgeting (PB), a form of participatory democracy many cities and communities are embracing as a solution to growing inequity, division and injustice.
But what is PB and how does it work? PB starts when elected officials decide to share power by letting ordinary residents decide how to spend a portion of the public budget. After that the process usually consists of five basic steps:
A paid steering committee representative of the community established basic scope and parameters in a process rule book.
People brainstorm ideas.
Community budget delegates and government staff refine ideas into projects vetted for legality, feasibility and sometimes equity and impact.
Projects go back to the community for a binding vote or decision.
Governments implement the winning projects with available funds and the process starts again.
Major cities like Seattle and San Francisco and even smaller ones like Tacoma have launched a PB processes. For example, Seattle is currently expanding its PB program to allocate $28 million to community safety projects. What about Portland?
A series of false starts and reversals by the Portland City Council has made launching PB in Portland an unfulfilled campaign promise since 2017.
During this year's budget process, the council had over $100 million in additional federal funds at their disposal but could not see the wisdom in delegating even a small fraction of their decision-making power to the community through PB.
Sharing power is hard for most elected officials, even when budgets are not tight. But austerity may be all the more reason to launch PB. Vallejo, California, made PB part of a successful strategy to emerge out of municipal bankruptcy in 2013. In Portland the City Council has not fully grasped that PB is not a competing investment for existing budget priorities, but a better way to invest in those priorities, one that taps the expertise of the community and makes government more trustworthy.
In a hopeful sign, the Portland Charter Commission seems to recognize this. In response to public testimony, PB is on the list of charter reforms for Phase II of the Commission's work beginning in July. There is precedent in Boston, where voters adopted a PB mandate in their city charter last November.
Portland could do the same. Momentum is growing. After tiring of waiting, five community organizations teamed last year to launch a youth-based PB process called Youth Voice Youth Vote PB within two state Senate districts east of I-205. By this time next year the hundreds of youths in East Portland, Gresham and beyond will vote on how to spend a half million in American Rescue Plan Act funds committed by state legislators Kayse Jama, Chris Gorsek and Ricki Ruiz for COVID recovery projects.
Elected leaders would be wise to get behind or in front of the push to expand participatory budgeting in Oregon. Communities are becoming impatient and are ready to exercise their power to drive solutions that work for them. Why not let them?
Danny Cage lives in Northeast Portland.
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