Participatory Budgeting ‘Clearly Delayed Until Next Year’

by Paul Faruq Kiefer

(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Seattle’s participatory budgeting process, which received $30 million in the 2021 city budget adopted last year, “is now clearly delayed until next year,” Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales confirmed by email Wednesday.

The City Council identified participatory budgeting as a way to allocate spending on alternatives to policing last year. But the timeline to get the process underway has been unclear for months because of uncertainty about who will manage the process. The council is considering two options, but Morales has been reluctant to move forward with either alternative.

The first option would follow the plan the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) team laid out in their final presentation to the City Council in March. According to that plan, a third-party contractor — likely a nonprofit — would be responsible for hiring a 26-person “steering committee,” made up of people representing various marginalized groups. The steering committee would gather proposals from Seattle-area residents, shape them into viable projects, and supervise a citywide voting process to choose which projects get funded; through the contractor, the City would pay steering committee members an annual salary of around $112,000, including benefits. 

The third-party contractor would also be responsible for reducing barriers to participation in the participatory budgeting process, including distributing Wi-Fi hotspots and computers to low-income residents and providing translation services. 

Because of all these new hires, the BBRP researchers’ proposed budget for administering the participatory budgeting process is close to $8 million, with an additional $6 million set aside to cover unexpected costs; that would leave roughly $16 million to fund community safety projects.

Because of its high overhead costs, Morales has called the BBRP’s proposal “unworkable” in its current form. But she is no more confident in an alternative proposal, offered by Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington during talks with the council with BBRP researchers, that would put the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) in charge of participatory budgeting at a lower cost and on a shorter timeline. Under that model, DON would hire 15 contractors to serve on a steering committee for $75 an hour; overall, the mayor’s office estimates that the scaled-down approach would cost $2.6 million, but the office maintains that the mayor isn’t advocating for any model in particular.

DON runs a small, 4-year-old participatory budgeting program called Your Voice, Your Choice, which allows residents to suggest and select small capital improvement projects — new speed bumps in front of Leschi Elementary School, for instance — or the department to fund.

From Morales’ perspective, the alternative participatory budgeting plan doesn’t reflect input from Black Seattle residents; according to the BBRP researchers’ final report to the council, members of the public who responded to their questionnaires and participated in their town halls were specifically opposed to entrusting DON to oversee the project. Instead, the respondents favored using staffers from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to support the work of a community steering committee.

The council isn’t bound to those two options: Councilmembers could also develop their own plan for administering the project. But Morales’ equitable development committee, which is responsible for choosing a plan, hasn’t met in earnest since March; its April meeting coincided with the release of the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which prompted Morales to end the meeting shortly after it began.

Morales hopes that the committee can agree on an implementation plan during its next meeting on May 18. She told PubliCola that whatever plan her committee adopts will likely place a third-party administrator — not DON — in charge of participatory budgeting.

Once the council decides how to administer the project, Morales said that the next step will require OCR to work with community members to set the parameters for the type of organization that will lead the process next year. That step will require the council to partially lift a budget proviso that’s kept the $30 million untouched in the city’s general fund, releasing a portion of the dollars to pay for city staff to prepare a more detailed budget for administering the project.

According to City Budget Office Director Ben Noble, the council can preserve whatever remains of the $30 million to fund the participatory budgeting process next year. “It would be standard procedure to carry money forward that’s earmarked for a specific use,” he said.

Despite the delays and controversies, Morales still hopes that a larger-scale participatory budgeting process can become an annual part of the City’s budgeting decisions. But the financial and administrative complexities of making participatory budgeting a permanent feature of Seattle’s budget — choosing how to measure the success of winning projects, for instance — are well past the horizon. For now, the participatory budgeting process that the City Council envisioned in the fall of 2020 is still out of reach.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

📸 Featured Image is attributed to the Seattle City Council Flickr account under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (Photo belongs to the Public Domain)

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