Let’s pay more than lip service to citizen participation in the city budget process

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Citizen bean counters allocated their stash among glass bowls representing the various city agencies and departments.

Citizen bean counters allocated their stash among glass bowls representing the various city agencies and departments.

On an otherwise normal Wednesday night in October, some 60 residents from all over New Orleans gathered in Central City to determine what should be the priorities in the city’s 2015 budget.

Fueled by a sense of exclusion from meaningful participation in the city’s budget process, participants literally counted beans to allocate funds to every city agency and department.  While the resulting People’s Budget was in many ways very similar to the Mayor’s budget, key differences emerged.

Most tellingly, every single participant indicated that they are not satisfied with the city’s current budget process, and 96 percent said they do not feel included in that process – despite more than half of them having attended one of the Mayor’s Budget Town Halls.

The evening began with People’s Budget Project Director Kelsey Foster providing participants with an overview of the 2014 city budget, including funding amounts for each department.  A fact sheet distributed among participants defined the functions of each department, indicated what services might be cut if that department was underfunded and gave examples of what could be accomplished with more funding. Additional presentations were made to further inform participants about specific components of the city budget.

Now the game was on.

Residents were given cups with 500 red beans, each bean representing $1 million in city general funds. First they had to allocate the beans to mandatory spending categories like the consent decrees, the Inspector General’s office, etc. Now discretion kicked in and participants placed their remaining beans in bowls representing the city’s various agencies and departments.

The major difference in priorities that emerged in the People’s Budget was that residents want to invest more in community and infrastructure and less in public safety.  The police department and the Sheriff’s office were ranked as the two most over-funded departments, and both got significantly less funding.

In contrast, residents invested more in mental health services, youth job training and opportunities, libraries, and water management.  Interestingly, despite all the “Fix My Streets” hoopla, Public Works received funding very comparable to that proposed by the Mayor.

Fundamentally, this indicates a desire to fund more proactively, focusing on skills, opportunities and infrastructure, rather than reactively by focusing on policing and detention.

Many of the participants were overheard commenting on how difficult the process was, and they clearly came away with a much greater appreciation for the challenges city leaders face in creating the budget.  The seriousness with which participants engaged indicates strongly that New Orleans is more than ready for a full-blown participatory budgeting process, in which residents work with city agencies to design specific infrastructure projects, then vote directly to assign a specific pool of funds to their top priorities.

Participatory Budgeting is a worldwide phenomenon that has produced significantly improved outcomes in everything from health care to education to public safety.  It also has generated community support for thoughtful new revenues measures.  President Obama has designated participatory budgeting as a national best practice, and it is time to launch it in New Orleans.

Additionally, we need to address the disconnection that a group of obviously engaged citizens felt about the city’s regular budget process. The city must hold the Budget Town Halls at least two months earlier, before the draft budget is actually assembled.  Ideally, the departmental budget offers would be made available at the Town Halls, and residents could engage in a ranking process that mirrors the actual process used within City Hall.

This would provide city leaders with far more useful input than 25 people standing up and demanding that their potholes be fixed, and the increased understanding of the budgetary challenges would help build support for reasonable new revenue measures.

The people of New Orleans clearly care about how the city spends their money and are fully capable of being partners in making those decisions. Let’s connect people to the budget ahead of next year’s process.

Keith Twitchell has served as president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans since 2004. He was worked on city budgeting issues since shortly after Katrina, and spoken at national conferences on Participatory Budgeting.

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