Budget power to the people

Vallejo gives its citizens control over the purse strings, why not Sacramento?

There's more on the Vallejo experiment at www.pbvallejo.org. Also, Josh Lerner will be speaking at the California Student Aid Center Conference Center (1020 11th Street, second floor) about participatory budgeting on Wednesday, December 5, at noon. It's part of a forum on new ideas in California fiscal policy, put on by California Forward and Sacramento State University public-policy alums. Go to www.cafwd.org/events for specifics.

It’s a hopeful thing that Sacramentans—and Californians, generally—were willing last week to tax themselves a little more to restore government services. Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 was passed convincingly. The city’s half-cent sales-tax hike, Measure U, was passed emphatically.

Since citizens were willing put their trust in government, maybe government ought to put a little more trust in its citizens. As is stands now, the Measure U money will go into the city’s general fund, and the Sacramento City Council will decide how to divvy up the additional $28 million per year in annual revenue.

The city council will pick a citizen oversight committee to keep track of how the money is spent and make sure everything is on the up and up. But that’s pretty much after the fact. How about giving citizens more input into how the money is spent to begin with?

Not so crazy, really. The city of Vallejo is right now embarking on a very hopeful experiment in “participatory budgeting.” You may remember that Vallejo declared bankruptcy in 2008, blazing a dubious trail that cities such as Stockton and San Bernardino have since followed.

The reasons for Vallejo’s bankruptcy are familiar to us here in Sacramento: the housing bubble, the collapse in local revenue when the economy tanked. Many point to generous retirement benefits for public employees as well.

Now emerging from bankruptcy, Vallejo is in some ways ahead of the curve. Last year, it embraced the radical notion that you get the government you pay for and passed Measure B, a remarkable 1 cent sales-tax bump—enough raise about $10 million a year for the city for the next 10 years.

Most of the Measure B money will go to meat-and-potatoes type services: cops, firefighters, pothole repairs and the like. But the Vallejo City Council also agreed to set aside almost one-third of the first year’s tax revenue—about $3 million—to be directly budgeted by the citizens themselves.

Citizen assemblies have begun in Vallejo, and ideas on how to best spend the tax money are being gathered now. According to Joey Lake, chairman of the city’s Participatory Budgeting Committee, some early ideas that have been floated include: bringing back the city’s jazz festival, building a public fishing dock, public-art projects, public WiFi downtown, and a day-care center for mothers trying to return to school, among many other proposals.

In the spring, residents will vote on the worthy projects—the method of voting is still being hammered out. But even for those ideas that don’t make the cut, just gathering the pitches together has a lot of value. And if the project is successful, the city council may vote to allocate some portion of the next year’s Measure B money to participatory budgeting.

And here’s one of the most interesting parts to Bites: It’s not just registered voters who get to decide—it’s everyone who lives in the city, age 16 and up. After all, young people are some of the biggest users of city services, such as parks and after-school programs.

“It behooves us to talk to the constituency that most of this money is going toward,” said Lake.

“It shows how democracy can be made more inclusive and involve people who are normally excluded from the process,” added Josh Lerner with the Brooklyn, New York City-based Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit group that is helping Vallejo run its P.B. experiment.

Lerner’s group has helped set up similar processes in New York City and Chicago, where particular boroughs or districts have used participatory budgeting, and residents have greenlighted a variety of projects, such as murals, streetlights and ultrasound machines for local clinics.

P.B. has a longer history in other parts of the world, especially Brazil, where the city of Porto Alegre first embraced the practice back in 1989. Vallejo’s is sort of a test case, the first citywide participatory-budgeting experiment in the United States.

How hopeful it will be if Vallejo—once one of the most dysfunctional local governments in a state known for government dysfunction—comes out of its bankruptcy as a more democratic place.

“There was a lot of distrust in government,” said Lerner. “People are used to coming to meetings and complaining. We’re asking people to come to meetings and decide.”

There’s a lot of distrust in government in Sacramento, too. Passing Measure U was something of an act of faith. The Vallejo experiment suggests faith like that can be rewarded.