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Here's everything to know about Cleveland's 'People's Budget' proposal

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 speaks in front of other PB CLE members at Cleveland City Hall.

Clevelanders will decide in November whether residents will be able to directly propose and vote on how a portion of the city’s budget is spent through a process called participatory budgeting.

Here’s everything you need to know about it:

What is participatory budgeting?

Participatory budgeting creates a process where city residents can propose and vote on how a portion of the budget is used.

Typically, Cleveland's budgeting process works like this: The mayor lays out his budget proposal, which then goes through weeks-long hearings in Cleveland City Council. Council ultimately amends and approves the final budget.

Participatory budgeting would set aside part of the city’s budget to go toward projects and programs voted upon by Clevelanders.

It's a process that originated in Brazil and has been adopted by more than 3,000 municipalities around the world. In the United States,New York City's participatory budgeting process has been in place for over a decade, allowing residents in 30 of the city's districts to determine how $1 million is spent in their neighborhoods. New York’s idea generation phase and voter outreach focuses on difficult-to-reach communities, like non-native English speakers, young people, senior citizens and public housing residents. Cleveland organizers say they want to do the same.

Who are the proponents?

People’s Budget Cleveland, or PB CLE, is the local coalition advocating for participatory budgeting. The grassroots group is made up of residents, organizers, activists and educators.

The group formed as the city contemplated how to spend its nearly half-billion-dollar pot of federal pandemic relief stimulus funding designated by the American Rescue Plan Act. They worked with Mayor Justin Bibb to bring forth a pilot program, which would have used some of those ARPA funds to test drive a participatory budgeting program.

But Cleveland City Council members pushed back on the plan, ultimately killing it earlier this year.

In the months that followed, PB CLE collected more than 10,000 signatures to work toward codifying a new, citizen-driven proposal in the city’s charter through a ballot initiative. More than 6,400 of the necessary 5,906 signatures were verified in July, officially allowing the proposal to appear on the November ballot.

What’s in the proposal, and where would the money come from?

PB CLE’s proposal would ultimately put an equivalent of 2% of the city’s general fund toward the “people’s budget.”

In the first year after adoption, the fund would receive a $350,000 lump sum to be used toward initial administrative costs.

In the second year, the city would allocate an equivalent of 1% of the general fund before maxing out at 2% in its fourth year and thereafter.

According to 2023 budget numbers, 2% of the general fund is about $14 million.

City council and PB CLE disagree on whether the money for the participatory budget must come from the general fund, which is used to fund city functions like police and fire services and the building department. This year's general fund totaled $710 million in city functions, including each department’s budget for staffing.

Those funds must come from the general fund, Cleveland City Council spokesperson Joan Mazzolini wrote in an email. PB CLE organizers say up to 60% of the money can come from the city’s capital budget, which funds infrastructure and construction projects. Both groups cite the proposal language.

Mazzolini pointed to the sections that outline how the dollar amounts allocated to the fund will be determined.

"In the fourth year after adoption of this Amendment, and thereafter, the City will allocate an amount equal to two percent (2.0%) of the City’s General Fund from the previous year’s adopted budget to the PB Fund," the charter amendment petition reads.

PB CLE, however, points to another section that reads: "People’s Budget funds will be used for both capital expenses and time-bound programmatic expenses. The City shall determine what percentage of funding is available for capital expenses and time-bound programmatic expenses, provided that funding to neither category shall consist of more than sixty (60%) of the total funding the City allocates to PB."

That, the group contends, would give residents flexibility in determining how money is spent: on programming or physical projects, such as a new city pool or park.

But using money from the city's capital budget would be problematic because the capital budget is funded, in part, through the issuance of bonds, Mazzolini wrote.

Why are so many elected officials against it?

When city council first shot down the pilot program proposal this year, many members argued that citizens elected them to determine how funds are spent on their behalf.

Council has not changed its position as the measure heads to the ballot. In July,city council released a statement arguing if approved, the charter amendment would have a “devastating impact on the city” and warning of potentially “massive layoffs.”

Council said a $14 million budget reduction could prevent the hiring of 140 police officers and eliminate the entire departments of public health, aging and building and housing and cause the division of recreation staff and half of the emergency medical services staff to be cut. PB CLE’s leadership has called those allegations “inaccurate, misleading scare tactics,” pointing to the potential to use some of the city’s capital funds, which does not affect staffing or salaries.

PB CLE has also lost the support of Mayor Justin Bibb, who initially helped forge the pilot program using federal stimulus funds. 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, saying it is not “in the best financial interest of Clevelanders.”

In addition, unions representing city employees like EMS and police are against the initiative, saying they worry that reduced funds could affect already dwindling staffing numbers, future benefits and resources.

Who gets to decide how the money is used?

If approved, an 11-person steering committee would be established to create guidelines and rules on proposals, voting and other procedures. Ten of the members would be appointed by the mayor and city council. The other member will be a city staff member hired to support the process.

Once rules and guidelines are in place, any Cleveland citizen over the age of 13 will be able to bring forth ideas and vote, regardless of if they are a registered voter.

What happens next?

That’s up to Clevelanders to decide.

Two members of PB CLE will debate Council Member Kris Harsh, who represents Old Brooklyn and part of the Stockyard neighborhoods and is against the measure, and a partner that is yet to be determined on at 6 p.m. at the Little Theater inside Public Hall on September 26.

In November, Clevelanders will vote on whether or not to pass the measure.

Updated: August 16, 2023 at 6:57 PM EDT
This story was updated to include city council's position that the funding for participatory budgeting must come from the general fund.
Corrected: August 16, 2023 at 11:50 AM EDT
A previous version of this article erroneously stated the third year's allocation would be equivalent to 1% of the general fund budget. The correct amount is 1.5%.
Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.