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Another Voice: Participatory budgeting will empower citizens

By Michael J. LoCurto, Rasheed N.C. Wyatt and David A. Rivera

Participatory budgeting, or “PB” as it is known, is a democratic process in which citizens directly decide how to spend a portion of a public budget. It allows everyday citizens to play a key role in identifying, developing and prioritizing public spending, and gives them a voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent.

This innovative process, started in Brazil 25 years ago, has been used to facilitate real change with real money in more than 1,500 municipalities worldwide. Among them are Vallejo, Calif., where city officials successfully implemented the first-ever citywide process as a way to regain the trust of the community following the city’s bankruptcy, and New York City, where 24 City Council districts recently participated in the process, putting their constituents in control of $25 million of the city’s budget.

Participatory budgeting is a clear opportunity and proven methodology to do away with the barriers that once stood between citizens and their government. Not only because it gives people control over public spending, but because it is a powerful tool in fostering civic engagement and understanding of the interworking of government. A more informed and diverse electorate undoubtedly leads to a more responsible and responsive government.

Participatory budgeting also forces us to test our assumptions about the priorities for our neighborhoods. We struggle every year with questions of what parks need to be renovated, what streets need paving and what programs for our seniors should be funded. PB allows the community to decide that maybe basketball courts need better lighting, or more after-school programming is necessary, or roadways that include protected bike lanes. The community knows best what it needs.

Locally, participatory budgeting represents the highest aspirations for a renewed Buffalo, in which our community embraces and upholds equality, fairness, inclusivity and mutual respect. Not just empty platitudes, but principles at the forefront of our collective action.

Participatory budgeting is an idea whose time has come. This has become a self-evident truth through the full and repeated support of the Buffalo Common Council, community-driven organizations deeply committed to the cause despite the lack of funding to do so, and most importantly, the passionate and well-informed testimonies of citizens from all socioeconomic backgrounds on why this process matters. This is our moment; this is our chance, to strengthen our community while simultaneously deepening democracy. Let’s make good use of it.

Michael J. LoCurto is the Delaware District council member; Rasheed N.C. Wyatt is the University District council member; David A. Rivera is the Niagara District council member.