Cleveland City Council has been holding special meetings to decide how to spend the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, but citizens of Cleveland, coming together under the name Participatory Budgeting Cleveland, have been making plans of their own, too.
Participatory Budgeting Cleveland, or PB Cle, held its first educational, public event on Saturday in Woodland Hills’ Luke Easter Park, during which attendees could participate in a simulated participatory budgeting process to decide, hypothetically, how to spend a portion of the city’s $511 million in ARPA funds. Participatory budgeting is a process by which citizens vote on how to spend a chunk of a municipality’s budget set aside for them by elected officials.
“Participatory budgeting is one of those equalizers that can bring the conversation to elected officials so that they can know what their constituents want,” said Angelique Salizan, a PB Cle member and the Ohio policy and outreach manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
The impetus for participatory budgeting is right there in the name: participation. Too often, Cleveland’s government leaves citizens, especially those in marginalized groups or lower-income areas, out of decisions that impact them most, said Molly Martin, a PB Cle member and the director of strategic initiatives at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
“This is a way to kind of see our budget as a moral document of what our community wants to see,” Martin said.
Clevelanders know what their neighborhoods need, said Robin Brown, a PB Cle member and the founder of Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead. Participatory budgeting, she said, is a way those most impacted by the issues can help fund solutions that they themselves design.
“We already know the solutions,” Brown said. “But we don’t have the resources, and that breaks down to racism and redlining taking the resources from those who need them most.”
Saturday’s event showed attendees how it all works with stations set up to simulate in just a few hours the actual process, which can take about a year. First, citizens need to design the process, which usually means selecting community members to serve on a steering committee that lays out the rules going forward. Next, that committee holds meetings in neighborhoods throughout the city to brainstorm ideas. After that comes the longer process of researching and vetting the most popular ideas to formulate actionable policy.
Finally, PB Cle would post the vetted ideas on their website, and residents would vote for the idea they like best. The winning idea or ideas then go through a finalization phase before getting funded and implemented.
Participatory budgeting began in the U.S. in Chicago in 2009, but the practice has spread to major cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Boston. In 2019, for example, New Yorkers across 35 districts decided to spend about $35 million to upgrade schools and parks, among dozens of other projects.
Experiments in participatory budgeting have already been implemented in Collinwood and Tremont, but PB Cle got its start earlier this year. A group of citizens joined together to formulate a proposal asking city council to dedicate $30.8 million in ARPA funds for participatory budgeting, a figure alluding to the 30.8 percent of Cleveland’s population who live below the poverty line. The group held “house parties” with about 200 residents total, both in person and virtually, to brainstorm ideas for how that money should be spent.
PB Cle is still seeking input into those ARPA funds, but they’re also eyeing a consistent line item in the city’s general budget as their ultimate goal. For now, they’re waiting to see who will win Cleveland’s mayoral race before they move forward with their proposal for ARPA funds.
Justin Bibb said on Twitter that he supports PB Cle. And he’s not alone. City council candidates like Kate Warren in Ward 13, Rebecca Maurer in Ward 12 and Richard Starr in Ward 5 have endorsed PB Cle, too. PB Cle has racked up dozens of endorsements from grassroots organizations and influential foundations alike.
“Once the election is over, we’re trying to use those different channels of civic engagement through public comment, through organizing community events, and trying to do targeted outreach to elected officials,” Martin said. “Having events and meeting our neighbors and getting them on board with this idea is how we’re trying to build power.”
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.