Commentary

11/08/2012  by Alexandra Bjerg

Vallejo residents directly decide how to spend sales tax revenue

How would you spend $3.2 million to improve your city? The city of Vallejo is asking residents to decide that very question. 

Last April, just months after coming out of bankruptcy, Vallejo’s City Council passed the first citywide participatory budgeting program in the nation. 

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process where community members decide how to spend a portion of a public budget. In Vallejo, residents have the opportunity to directly decide how to spend 30%, $3.2 million, of the revenue generated from a sales tax increase that took effect in January. 

PB, which has been implemented in 1,200 other cities worldwide, is truly an innovative form of direct democracy that improves transparency and accountability in the budget process while creating a more inclusive government and informed citizenry.

Many cities hold community budget discussions, but by the first meeting the city council already knows how they want to carve up the budget. Whereas, “participatory budgeting entails months of talks and collaboration that begin with ideas from the community and ultimately ends with decisions made by the community,” said Ginny Brown, Vallejo’s PB Community Engagement Coordinator. 

Residents will identify the top issues impacting the city and brainstorm ideas for how to address them at nine budget assemblies being held across the city from now through December. Turnout for the first assembly, held last week, was extremely high. Over 100 people expressed interest in developing projects around issues ranging from microfinance, to workforce development, to reviving the Vallejo Blues Festival.  

Ideas that do not meet criteria or cost more than the allotted revenue will be screened out by volunteer budget delegates.  Budget delegates are not required to have experience with municipal budgets, they need only a “passion and commitment to making positive change in the community,” said Browne, as training and constant feedback will be provided to all. 

With the help of city staff, the delegates will transform the remaining suggestions into proposals to be presented to the community at a project expo, similar to a science fair, in April and voted on in May.  

The top priority projects, as identified through the voting process, will then be sent to the city council for final approval before being implemented. 

This process will allow the community to “design their own democratic process and reevaluate what civic engagement means in their community,” said Browne. For example, as designers of the voting process, the 20 member steering committee agreed to allow residents as young as 16 to vote on proposals and permit anyone 14 and older to serve as budget delegates.

In addition to increasing civic engagement, the project is designed to provide residents with a civic education. Throughout the process PB will “empower the citizens of Vallejo with the skills and knowledge of how government works in the city and how to get involved in city government,” said Joey Lake, Steering Committee Chair, in a press conference. In the end, the community should come away with a better understanding of how the city spends money and how to hold their leaders accountable.

“At a time when the federal and state government is taking from local government more and more, PB is about giving back budgetary control to our citizens,” said Vallejo City Councilmember Marty Brown at a press conference. “It’s about rebuilding trust and confidence in government’s ability to deliver on the promise to improve quality of life and high quality services at the local level.” 

California Forward believes that transparency and inclusiveness are the cornerstones of good government. With this project Vallejo has taken a new and innovative approach to reinvigorate a civic culture that will foster accountability, openness, and create a closer relationship between local representatives and their constituents. 

The eyes of the state and the nation are on Vallejo, several other cities have already expressed an interest in adopting the program. If all goes well, Vallejo can serve as a model for other cities. 

Categories: Government

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