Participatory Budgeting: Could it work in La Crosse?

By Eric Timmons

There’s deep disconnect in La Crosse, and likely most places in the U.S., between the vast majority of ordinary people and their local government. It’s a disconnect that leaves people alienated from the system at the level at which they could arguably have the most influence.

The erosion of local media, the decline of unions and the fraying of various other social bonds have all contributed to this disconnect. Of course, many working class, indigenous and Black communities have always been frozen out. 

What might we do to begin to change this and in the process show people that getting involved in local politics counts for something?

One small step in that direction could be to institute some level of participatory budgeting (PB) in La Crosse. PB has its roots in Porto Alegre in Brazil and is now used all over the world, from Paris to Dehli to New York, and a number of other cities in the U.S. It’s a democratic process that allows community members to directly decide through assemblies and a vote how part of a city or other public budget should be spent.

PB has shown great promise in New York, where it was launched in 2011 through a relatively small pilot project in four council districts. By 2019, the program had expanded to 32 districts and was being used to allocate over $35 million in capital funding for library, school, public housing and many other projects. The program has achieved impressive levels of participation, including among those often marginalized by the system. In 2014-15 PB voting in New York, nearly 60 percent of voters identified as people of color, nearly 30 percent reported an annual household income of $25,000 or below and 63 percent identified as female.

Public assemblies are held over several months across New York to identify neighborhood concerns, and each council district gets at least $1 million to allocate. This is done at a community level, free from the staid bureaucracy anyone who’s attended regular city meetings will encounter. There are district committees and budget delegates that bring many young people into politics for the first time, and all this culminates in a direct vote on capital projects. Some districts allow youth as young as 14 to vote, others allow participation to start at 16.

Contrast this with how our city government often functions in La Crosse. The administration (the mayor, staff, various department heads) do the heavy lifting on coming up with plans and policies. Those plans then move through the committee process to the council for an up or down vote. In the vast majority of cases, the recommendation of the administration is approved. To a certain extent, there’s nothing wrong with this. Elected council members have neither the time nor the expertise to decide on upgrades to the wastewater treatment system, for example, so they lean on the professionals.

But what this also means is that, apart from the occasional conflagration when the council mediates between the public and City Hall, the council is hardly needed for the city to function, aside from its role in adding a patina of democracy to our municipal government. Few members of the public attend city meetings, and when they do they are sometimes scolded for showing up too late in the process (this was evident during council meetings over the summer about the city’s capital budget) or met with condescension for failing to understand how the system works. PB offers a way to do things differently that puts power in the hands of the people through a form of direct democracy.

Capital Improvements

But how might it work in La Crosse? Recently the council approved a $318 million, five-year capital budget1, with little public deliberation. The budget includes many projects, some good, some bad. But we can be fairly certain that the vast majority of people in La Crosse know very little about this critical document. Despite what they might say, city officials have not done much to explain the spending in the plan or seek genuine public input (sorry, brief public hearings at City Hall don’t count).

What if we set aside 5% of the $318 million, a relatively conservative amount, and let it be controlled by an annual PB process? That 5% equals $15.9 million, or over $3.1 million a year for the next five years. The money could be divided into three pots of about $1 million for three sections of the city. Or we could have one citywide vote on the $3.1 million and fund one larger project. 

The money could be used to support our public schools (yes, we could use city funds for public schools if we chose to do so), it could build new neighborhood swimming pools, a free health clinic for people experiencing homelessness, improvements to library buildings or equipment, a public housing project, skate parks, and much more. The city could also team up with other public bodies or nonprofits on projects to increase funding or find ways to pay for operational costs.

It seems considerably less likely, if the people were in charge, that money would go on a $36 million police and fire station, or the $42 million renovation of the La Crosse Center (I realize that’s not entirely city money), or be plowed into various economic development projects of sometimes questionable merit. 

Already existing neighborhood associations could organize assemblies to identify community needs and projects that might address them. This would be a crucial part of the process, allowing for real public deliberation and hopefully giving voice to those who usually are not heard. Council members would attend these meetings, and get to listen to the people, rather than have the people come to them at City Hall. One benefit of PB in New York has been that projects that don’t make the cut but gather public support through the process often attract the interest of the council for future spending.

A ranked choice voting system on projects could be used and anyone, as long as they lived in La Crosse, could vote. For PB elections, we could lower the voting age to 16, as a way to listen to young people and bring them into the public sphere.

The PB votes, which hopefully would boost participation compared to the often abysmal turnout for local elections, could also be used as a vehicle to register people to vote in regular elections. But the main goal would be to give people real power over community resources, in the hope of sparking greater engagement in general with local government. Importantly, rather than the crumbs that are sometimes tossed to local community projects, PB could have real heft and fund substantial, durable public assets.

At the very least, PB is an experiment in direct democracy that would be worth trying in La Crosse, and if we’re lucky, one that might begin to break through the stale status quo and give power to the people.

  1. Funding for the $318 million capital budget is proposed to come from $135.8 million in new borrowing, $192.7 million in city funding and $125.2 million in non-city funding, which includes state, federal and other sources. Parts of the plan, which is for 2021-25, are also tied to specific Tax Increment Financing districts.

Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top image shows city of New York participatory budgeting pamphlets. Daniel Latorre/CC BY 2.0 

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