"People's Budget" Would Let Clevelanders Decide How to Spend $5.5 Million

Proponents say participatory budgeting eliminates backroom dealing and gives power to the people

click to enlarge PB CLE member Keshawn Walker speaks outside City Hall
PB CLE member Keshawn Walker speaks outside City Hall

Activists, organizers and supporters gathered at Cleveland City Hall Monday night, urging City Council to pass something new for the city — participatory budgeting legislation.

The event was organized by local grassroots coalition Participatory Budgeting Cleveland, better known as PB CLE, and preceded the ordinance’s formal proposal to city council.

Participatory budgeting is a process where community members vote on how to spend a portion of a public budget. If passed, the proposed legislation would allocate $5.5 million of federal funding to what PB CLE has dubbed the “People’s Budget." A resident “steering committee” would be established and residents would submit and vote on ideas.

“This is a simple idea: the people closest to the problems are the people closest to the solutions,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer of Ward 12, who sponsored the bill with Mayor Justin Bibb, Ward 15 Councilwoman Jenny Spencer and Ward 7 Councilwoman Stephanie Howse.

"No more backroom deals, no more business as usual, no more 'you gotta know a city councilperson to get something done,'” said Jonathon Welle, co-coordinator of PB CLE. “This time we're here for real democracy; we're here for real people's power."

The money would come from the $511 million Cleveland received from the American Rescue Act, major federal legislation designed to help communities recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The money can be used for “supporting public health response, replacing public sector revenue, addressing negative economic impacts and improving infrastructure,” but must be spent by the end of 2024.

"This will be the first time in our city that we as residents have available dollars to come up with sustainable ideas that we sit at our kitchen table thinking about … already coming up with an answer but not having the resources,” said PB CLE organizing member Robin Brown. “This is the way we can start having those resources.”

Proponents also claim that participatory budgeting would bring increased voter participation. Some recent studies in U.S. cities and abroad found that participatory budgeting participants were more likely to vote.

“I don’t understand how anybody could be against this,” Walker said. “I want to question those in City Hall: How can you be against this? And why would you be against it?”

But the legislation does have its critics. “I believe that what they’re trying to do has a lot of nobility, but I don’t support it," Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin of Ward 6 told ABC News 5.

“I don’t see anything measurable that can show this will lead to more voter participation, I don’t see how this can be done equitably,” Griffin said. “To create another steering committee, to put a half-million dollars into creating another unelected body in the city of Cleveland to administer dollars, I just don’t think it’s good government.”

A 2022 action plan from PB CLE estimated that the total cost of staff, technology and supplies for outreach would cost Cleveland $489,000 annually, a considerable drawback for its opponents.

Although the future of the “People’s Budget” remains uncertain, the PB CLE coalition and ordinance sponsors remain optimistic.

“We have much work ahead, but this is a huge milestone,” said Councilwoman Maurer.

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