ST. PETERSBURG — More than 200 members of the People’s Budget Review packed a budget hearing at City Hall last fall calling for more spending on neighborhoods, youth training and projects to reduce poverty.
City council listened, carving out $300,000 of former Mayor Bill Foster’s final budget. The money went to neighborhoods, a youth summer employment program and a program to help families in extreme poverty in South St. Petersburg.
Buoyed with that success, members of the group that includes local trade unions and neighborhood associations now want to give residents a direct say on how some of the city’s budget is spent every year.
They are proposing a radical change to the city’s charter to give residents control over up to 3 percent of the city’s general fund, or currently about $6.3 million. Their first step will be to collect more than 16,000 signatures to force a referendum on adding the proposal to the city’s charter.
Known as participatory budgeting, similar initiatives have been adopted in hundreds of European and South American cities. The United States has been slower to adopt it, with only a handful of communities using it, including Brooklyn, Chicago and Boston, but none in Florida.
Proponents say it increases people’s involvement and enthusiasm for local government and leads to better decision making as residents have a better idea of their community’s needs. In Chicago, residents chose to use a small portion of the city’s budget to buy iPads for children at half-dozen schools in poor neighborhoods.
Typically, residents attend meetings in their local neighborhoods and suggest ideas for how the money could best be spent. In St. Petersburg, that could be done with meetings in each of the eight city council districts, said Rick Smith, a strategist for the group and chief of staff for the local branch of the Florida Public Services Union.
Those ideas are worked into proposals with cost details and then voted on by residents. In Brooklyn, residents who are not citizens or are as young as 16 can vote in the informal polls on which projects should be funded.
“It really creates an excitement and burst of creativity that is lacking in politics right now,” Smith said.
The failure of the idea to spread in the United States partly stems from the country’s representative democracy, since people chose who makes decisions at almost every level of government, said Brenda Morrison, co-founder of Denver-based Engaged Public, a public-policy consulting group that works to get people involved in the political process.
But she said the idea can work well as long as there is cooperation from elected leaders and local meetings attract a diverse sample of the community.
“Sometimes, groups that are well organized can stack the deck,” Morrison said.
To get the proposal on the ballot, PBR must get petitions signed by at least 10 percent of the city’s approxoimately 156,000 registered voters. Smith said the group will try to achieve that this year but it may take longer.
If the referendum passes, the proposal calls for the city to form a committee to iron out how the process would work at the community level. The committee would include people nominated by each city council member and representatives from trade unions, chambers of commerce, environmental and social justice groups chosen by the city’s mayor.
In its first year, only 1 percent of the city’s general fund would be allocated for residents’ projects but that would rise to 3 percent by the program’s third year.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has yet to see the proposal.
“The mayor welcomes as many people as possible to participate in public hearings related to the budget,” said Kevin King, Kriseman’s chief of staff. “We need to get a better grip on what they’re proposing.”
City council member Darden Rice, who was endorsed by the SEIU, is supportive but wants to make sure projects chosen for funding fit into the city’s overall goals.
“We’re talking about a small percentage of the budget being placed in voters’ hands,” Rice said. “I don’t think it’s an encroachment on the responsibility of elected officials; it helps people to connect the dots about what city hall does that affects their daily lives.”