As Cleveland City Council begins hearings on Mayor Frank Jackson's proposed $1.8 billion 2021 budget, which he officially introduces this morning, and in the wake of a year where Black Lives Matter protests brought renewed attention to how cities devote budgetary resources to police compared to social services, a local project aims to educate and engage Cleveland residents in the opaque yet essential process of funding the city.
a collaborative project by residents with assistance provided by Open Cleveland and Black Lives Matter Cleveland, allows residents to not only inspect, in a broad sense, the $600+ million in Jackson's proposed general fund budget but to reallocate resources between departments based on their priorities.
Austin Davis, one of the residents behind the idea, said the project had been percolating for awhile but given new energy by the events of the last year as well as how other cities decide their budgets. In Chicago, for instance, townhalls gather citizen input before budgets are finalized, and groups in some cities have explored People's Budget
models, where a certain percentage of the general fund is set aside with residents voting on how it's spent.
"Pre-pandemic, there were things we were already concerned with — lack of transparency, lack of resident input, lack of public comment," Davis says. "Cut to the pandemic, and everything stops and the George Floyd protests and city budgets became top of mind for everyone. And people started thinking about how weird it is that we spend one-third of a budget on policing."
The reallocation function of Refund Cleveland doesn't happen in a bubble, and that's be design. Users can submit their new budgets to their city councilpeople as a way, in lieu of townhalls or public comment at city council proper, to give feedback.
Elizabeth Rose, another member of the project, says civic responses to city council's long history of ignoring public comment was one of the driving forces to get residents engaged on their own.
"There's not a lot of transparency in general, and with the start of Cleveland Documenters
at city council meetings, this just really spoke to me," she says. "The world needs to start in terms of actually making change, and that starts with local and understanding where we are as a city. The city budget is a good way to see if our leaders are in line with your priorities."
While a large chunk of the budget as a whole (schools, water, roads, public housing) deals with separate revenue streams, the general fund, they say, clearly shows the administration's agenda.
Refund Cleveland bypasses the MS Clip Art and inane trivia included in the (embarrassingly designed) 500+-page budget document
prepared by the city for a simplified view. And, with 60 days or so between when the mayor submits the budget and April 1, when city council must finalize it, there's plenty of time, hypothetically, to solicit community feedback and make adjustments.
"Something like [Refund Cleveland] should be done by the government, not by us," says Davis. "They should provide an easy access feedback loop for Clevelanders."
"Part of the goal is having participation be a big piece now and in the future," says Rose. "Where is the money going and what is the mayor proposing doing? A lot of it is hard to convey, but having an understanding of how much is going to Fire and EMS and how much is going to community services is important."
For now, residents can simply share their reallocated priorities with their councilperson, but down the line the group hopes there's an ongoing conversation about how the city budget can be accountable to residents' wishes.
"By the time we've completed the survey, we can start saying this is what we want and this is what you did, and hopefully someday make the difference less," says Davis.