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Initiative To Put City Spending In Residents’ Hands Moving Forward

City Hall
The City of Richmond is moving forward with a proposal that's set to move some budgeting power out of City Hall, hoping to engage more residents in the process. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A plan to implement a participatory budgeting process in Richmond is finally moving toward implementation.

In October 2019, Richmond City Council passed a resolution calling on the city’s administration to set aside money each year for the initiative. It outlined a process for participatory budgeting where residents propose new projects at public meetings and volunteer “budget delegates” would turn those ideas into full proposals with the help of city staff. Residents would then vote on proposals in their council district. The initiative, however, was put on the backburner in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Now, Richmond City Council is accepting applications for a commission that will decide how to implement a participatory budgeting program.

“There are a lot of benefits to participatory budgeting and I think the biggest one for me is trying to democratize how we put some money to work in your neighborhood,” said 1st District Council Member Andreas Addison. “I don’t want it to be that the loudest voice for each council person is the one that gets heard.”

Addison sponsored the initial resolution to create a participatory budgeting program alongside Kristen Larson and former council member Parker Agelasto.

Larson, a long-time proponent of increasing government transparency, said the process would be a meaningful way to bring the public into yearly budget negotiations.

“I see the participatory budgeting process as just a new way for folks to really connect to their tax dollars and to talk about and help prioritize projects in our communities,” Larson said.

The 2019 resolution called for the city to set aside $3 million each year for the initiative, but it did not say where the money would come from. It’s unclear how soon there would be funding for proposals that come out of the participatory budgeting process. No funding for the program was included in Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposed 2021-22 budget that goes into effect July 1.

Addison said an alternative to setting aside a specific amount of money could be to ensure the proposals get covered with existing funding.

“It might not be identified specifically as participatory budgeting money, but there will be participatory budgeting projects that are funded through our budget, and we hope to make that be $5 million worth,” he said.

Final proposals from the community are also a long way out. Applications for the steering commission will close at the end of April, and the commission is expected to work throughout the summer to create a “rulebook” for participatory budgeting in Richmond.

The Richmond-based nonprofit Storefront for Community Design will advise the commission on participatory budgeting best practices. The organization will also put together a series of public meetings after the commission completes its work.

Shawn Balon, executive director of Storefront for Community Designs, said the first year of the program will just be about educating the public on the participatory budgeting process and getting their feedback.

“It’s about building that capacity among residents, but also giving them a chance to have a voice where if something doesn’t sound right in the rulebook, we can revise it,” he said.

Balon said the public meetings will also allow residents to ensure the process is as equitable as possible moving forward.

“So for instance: There are nine voter districts [in Richmond],” Balon said. “Do all of the voter districts get the same amount of funding or does it change based on the need?”

The concept of participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a way to bring residents into the process of allocating government funds. According to the Participatory Budgeting Project, similar programs have spread to more than 7,000 cities around the world, including the U.S. and Canada.