by Jack Russillo
King County is calling on residents living in urban areas in unincorporated King County (including many areas of South King County) to apply to be on an ambitious new participatory budgeting committee that will have the decision-making power for millions of dollars worth of infrastructure and community development projects.
“This is something [King County has] been looking at since 2016 — how to get our community involved in some sort of participatory budgeting process,” said Gloria Briggs, the King County community investment committee coordinator, in an interview with the Emerald. “And so we’re here now and it’s a really great opportunity. I’m really excited to get community members on our committee and to get them actively engaged in this process. The [participatory budget] process, within itself, has a lot of positive impacts for our community.”
Briggs says among the program’s benefits is that she believes it will help “… increase civic engagement and … create stronger relationships between the community and our local government and local organizations because we’re all working together. It’s a very collaborative effort,” she says, and it will bring together a diverse group, including those who might otherwise not be engaged. “… “In this process, we’re actually going to be creating new community leaders.”
Briggs says participatory budgeting is not only more equitable but more effective than traditional budget processes, and it places a lot of responsibility on the community.
“The decision-making is solely going to be in the committee’s and the community’s hands. The committee is actually going to design the process for how we will do participatory budgeting in urban King County, and that’s huge. It’s a huge responsibility for the committee and it’s a very powerful position to be in.”
The new King County Urban Unincorporated Community Investment Committee is accepting applications for its first 21-member committee until the end of the day on April 16. Residents from five unincorporated areas in King County — Skyway/West Hill, North Highline/White Center, East Renton Plateau, Fairwood, and East Federal Way — are encouraged to apply online. The application is currently available in English, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Somali, Spanish, or Vietnamese.
According to the King County web page for the committee, “Each service area delegation will be a mix that includes representatives from businesses and community-based organizations, youths under age 21, and ‘at-large’ members who represent the community as a whole.”
Once the applicants have been selected, the committee will manage more than $11 million of funds meant for participatory budget use. The committee’s main duties will be to lead the participatory budget process and determine which capital projects make it to the ballot for the community to vote on, as well as how much funding each project receives.
The website states that the committee’s focus will be on “equity, access, accountability, and prioritization and cost-estimation of the projects.”
“We have a very diverse group of applicants so far,” said Briggs. “We’ve been very intentional here at King County by targeting the underrepresented groups and those are the people we want to have a seat at the table because that is what participatory budgeting is about. And those are our BIPOC communities, youth, seniors, people with low incomes and disabilities.”
The committee will manage project proposals for $10 million of community infrastructure funds from King County’s Department of Local Services’ budget for capital projects in unincorporated parts of the county. These funds could be used for projects that need something to be built or replaced, such as buildings, sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping, signs, and other needs. The committee will also be in charge of $1.3 million for services or programs in the Skyway/West Hill and North Highline unincorporated areas, with that funding coming from marijuana sales tax revenue. Those funds could be utilized for after-school programs, job training, structure maintenance, or food and healthcare services, among other issues.
Once chosen, committee members will be compensated for their time serving on the committee, which is expected to be between $50 and $75 per hour for four to eight hours of work per month, coming from King County’s Department of Local Services budget.
“We want our community members to know that we have value in them,” said Briggs, who will continually provide support to the committee once it’s formed. “This is real work and I think that’s the most equitable way, especially when we’re dealing with these vulnerable communities, to incentivize participation with this kind of commitment.”
King County will supply the committee with administrative, financial, and legal guidance, as well as training to help the committee navigate government systems.
Committee members will be chosen by King County staff and a panel of community members from a participatory budget work group that has been facilitated by King County. Committee member terms will last about two years, with the first committee’s terms expected to run through the end of December 2022, but exact details won’t be finalized until the selected committee members meet and create the rulebook for the new group.
The 21 applicants selected for the committee will be announced the week of April 26 and they’re expected to have their first meeting two weeks later, which will focus on introducing all of the committee members. In June, the committee will work on finalizing the guidelines it will operate under, such as forming the individual work groups for each unincorporated area. After that, the committee will begin collaborating with local organizations and other King County Local Services workers to create project proposals that will eventually go to the public to be voted on.
“This gives power to the people,” said Briggs, who’s also a Skyway resident. “It gives power to the community members to develop their own communities. It’s putting them at the forefront of the process. This is very life-changing for a lot of the people in unincorporated King County. This is a completely different way of us doing things. Most of the time when things are done in terms of budgets, it’s done from a top-down perspective, with professionals deciding what’s best for the community, but this is not happening like that.”
“Community is coming together, they’re creating the process, and then they will be voting on how to spend the budget for their community areas, Brigg explained. “I don’t know how much more powerful that can be. It’s an opportunity to build new community leaders through this process. It’s an opportunity for government and community to build trust and I think that’s one of the things we’ve struggled with in unincorporated areas — Skyway in particular — but I think that over the last five years King County has really stepped up and this process that I am a part of is showing that. We are bringing participatory budgeting to these areas that normally would not have had a say in what’s going on in their areas, and that’s huge.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
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