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Clevelanders will vote on 'People's Budget' in November, but city leaders push back

PB CLE Campaign Manager Molly Martin speaking in front of other PB CLE members at Cleveland City Hall.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
PB CLE Campaign Manager Molly Martin, left, speaks in front of other PB CLE members at Cleveland City Hall during a press conference earlier this year.

A new proposal that would allow Cleveland’s residents to propose and vote on how to spend a portion of the city’s budget is headed to the ballot this November, but the city's elected officials aren't happy with it.

PB CLE, a grassroots organization advocating for participatory budgeting, celebrated Wednesday after receiving news the city's clerk of council had determined the group submitted a sufficient number of valid signatures to qualify their proposal for a charter amendment vote in November. They’re calling it the “People’s Budget.”

“We’re thrilled,” said PB CLE’s campaign organizer Molly Martin, citing more than 6,400 valid signatures of the submitted 10,582 collected over a six-week period; 5,906 are needed for a ballot initiative.

“We see this as a sign that the people’s budget resonates with people across the city,” Martin said.

If approved, the proposal would allocate money to projects voted on by Cleveland residents. The amount would be equivalent to 1% — and eventually 2% — of the city’s general fund, or the city’s primary operating fund. PB CLE said at least some of that money could come from the city's capital budget, which finances capital construction.

City Council warns of layoffs, ‘devastating impact’ on city

The group is going up against city leadership. Cleveland City Council doubled down on messaging against participatory budgeting. In a written release, a City Council spokesperson said if $14 million (2% of the city’s most recent general fund) was diverted to participatory budgeting, it could lead to “massive layoffs” and have a “devastating impact on the city.”

That $14 million could prevent the hire of 140 police officers, eliminate the entire Department of Public Health, eliminate all staff from the Division of Recreation, the entire departments of Aging and Building and Housing and half of EMS staff, according to the release.

“I believe the proposal presented will have devastating impacts on public safety and services in our city,” City Council President Blaine Griffin said in a written statement.

But Martin calls their comments incorrect and misleading.

“PB CLE thinks Council is using scare tactics to dissuade residents from having real power to make real decisions about how public money gets spent,” she said.

She said the group is not asking for sweeping city staff cuts, but rather, to prioritize funding citizen-supported initiatives instead of putting tens of millions of dollars toward things like renovating sports stadiums.

PB CLE has been at odds with council for months over the idea, initially pitched as a pilot program alongside Mayor Justin Bibb. The group said they modeled their proposal off other initiatives in other cities like New York, which have allocated a portion of their budgets for citizen input and approval.

City Council shot down the proposal. Many members argued it went against the idea of a representative democracy in which citizens elect officials to represent their best interests, though four members, Stephanie Howse, Rebecca Maurer, Jenny Spencer and Deborah Gray, voiced their support.

PB CLE hopes the proposal will engage more people to participate in democracy in a city that suffers from low voter turnout, said Martin. Even non-registered voters will be able to make their voices heard in the participatory budget process.

“We see something like PB CLE as a great on-ramp to democracy and on-ramp to public service and civic education to residents of this city,” Martin said in response to the council’s arguments about elected representation.

PB CLE loses mayoral support

Despite his initial proposal in support of participatory budgeting to council earlier this year, Bibb told Ideastream he can’t get behind the proposed charter amendment.

Originally the group asked to set up a pilot program backed by the city’s one-time, half-billion dollar pot of stimulus dollars allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act. He said he no longer supports the initiative, as it is no longer a pilot program but a permanent change to the city’s charter, and it uses the city’s budget instead of stimulus dollars.

“This is very different from the initiative I proposed,” he said in a written statement. “I do not support this initiative because I truly do not believe it is in the best financial interest of Clevelanders, but it’s ultimately up to the residents of the City of Cleveland to decide.”

Even still, PB CLE is determined to see their proposal codified by the November election.

“The most democratic way to decide whether or not to have a people’s budget is taking it directly to residents,” Martin said.

Read the full charter amendment proposal here:

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.