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Buffalo residents speak out on how city should budget taxpayer money

Education and public schools. Recreational facilities and after-school programs. Participatory budgeting.

Those were some of the main points that residents told city lawmakers they would like to see money allocated for in the Byron W. Brown administration’s 2018-19 recommended budget that will be made available to the Common Council on May 1.

Tuesday’s public meeting – the first of its kind – provided a chance for the public to learn about the budget process and voice concerns.

Spectators packed the Council chambers on the 13th floor of City Hall, and there were at least 50 people on the speakers list.

Dominating the comments was participatory budgeting – a process that Buffalo funded in the 2015-16 budget cycle.

Speakers Tuesday asked that $5 million be set aside for the program.

“Participatory budgeting is really effective in engaging residents,” said Katie O’Sullivan, who was among several speakers to thank Common Council members for holding the meeting, which community organizations had been pushing for.

“Participatory budgeting supports and inclusive, transparent and open process,” O’ Sullivan said.

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members exchange ideas, work together to turn the ideas into project proposals and then vote to decide which proposals get funded.

Ideas for projects are generated through brainstorming sessions. Anyone can propose an idea for what they would like to see in a particular neighborhood.

Volunteers figure out the costs associated with the ideas and evaluate each one for feasibility and need. Those ideas are turned into a list of implementable projects that are voted on by stakeholders.

In the 2015-16 operating budget, Mayor Brown and the Council collaboratively set aside $150,000 out of the $493 million general fund for participatory budgeting, but since then no money has been set aside for it.

Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera ended up earmarking thousands of dollars from his discretionary funds for participatory budgeting programs in his district for the past two years.

Many of the speakers on Tuesday evening said they want the city to fund participatory budgeting in the upcoming operating budget.

“I would like to try that in the Ellicott District,” said India Walton.

There was also support for seeing more funds going to Buffalo Public Schools.

“Stop expanding the police budget and increase the school budget,” said Bryan Overland.

Larry Scott, president of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, said the city should make more money available to public schools to help advance the school district’s Community Schools, diversity teaching staff and to increase staffing in certain areas and to address “significant” transportation needs for Buffalo students.

Thomas Graber, annual fund and grants coordinator for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, said funding the BPO and other cultural agencies is vital to Buffalo’s future.

“We’re trying to fulfill a mission to reach the broadest audience possible,” he said. “Strong arts ... lead to a better quality of life.”

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