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WiFi? Street repairs? Parks? Cities let residents choose how to spend their tax dollars

A growing number of communities across the country and the world are letting their residents decide how to spend pots of money, usually discretionary capital funds. It's called participatory budgeting.

BUDGETS13P.(L-R) Freehold Borough Councilmen Ron Griffiths and Kevin Kane at the site of the proposed pedestrian bridge over Lake Topanemus, Freehold, NJ. Citizens voted to fund the building of the bridge through the process of participatory budgeting.
BUDGETS13P.(L-R) Freehold Borough Councilmen Ron Griffiths and Kevin Kane at the site of the proposed pedestrian bridge over Lake Topanemus, Freehold, NJ. Citizens voted to fund the building of the bridge through the process of participatory budgeting.Read moreBeverly Schaefer

The gnarled roots of centenarian trees push through concrete sidewalks throughout the neighborhoods of Freehold Borough in Monmouth County, N.J. The municipality once helped pay the costs of fixing the walkways, but scrapped the program a decade ago to save money.

Last fall, the sidewalk repair program got new life in an unusual way: Borough officials set $200,000 aside in their capital budget and asked their 12,000 residents how to spend it.

For a week in September, they let residents as young as 14 cast ballots online or by paper at the municipal building and community events. In the end, 346 people — on par with off-year election turnout — chose a new pedestrian bridge, more downtown lighting, and the sidewalk repair plan.

The exercise was the first statewide in a growing practice called participatory budgeting, in which local governments not only ask but depend on their citizens to decide how best to spend their tax dollars, usually discretionary capital funds.

"We really believe in it as a way to get people more involved and engaged in their town," said Freehold Borough Councilman Ron Griffiths. "As I've said to the council, we're not the only people with good ideas."

In recent decades, participatory budgeting has taken off, used in more than 1,500 communities worldwide to allocate spending of hundreds of millions of dollars.

New Yorkers have used participatory budgeting to fund playground and park improvements, technology upgrades at schools, and real-time arrival information at bus stops. In Chicago, residents voted to plant hundreds of trees, install benches at bus stops, resurface streets, and install artificial turf fields. And young people in Boston voted to use a $1 million annual allotment to create a "Get Hired" truck to help them apply for jobs and to install digital billboards at libraries so homeless students can find services.

Skeptics of the process question how drastically different it is than what governments already do — offering opportunities for input at public meetings or through online contact with officials — and whether municipal employees can fit more work into their schedules.

But proponents say it can be part of the solution to the pervasive problem of low turnout in elections and public meetings that too often draw the same small cadre of interested or available residents, while empowering disillusioned residents and making budgets more equitable. City leaders learn residents' priorities, which can inform policy decisions. Residents see tangible change and better understand how government works.

The system also can better reach marginalized communities, such as people of color and the homeless, because volunteers seek them out and bring the voting to them. It includes residents who cannot otherwise vote, such as teenagers, men and women with criminal records, and those immigrants who are usually ineligible.

In New Jersey, officials in other municipalities have said they may follow Freehold's lead. No Pennsylvania towns have yet signed on to the practice.

While Philadelphia hasn't adopted participatory budgeting, it is taking similar steps. Last year, officials surveyed 7,000 residents online, in print, and by phone and found that street conditions were a top priority. So this year's budget proposal — to be voted on in the next few weeks — includes more money for repaving roads.

Budget Director Anna Adams said the budget office has been considering how it can better solicit public input and hopes to unveil a new outreach program later this year.

She said the city offers a lot of budget information online, but "we haven't really given people the opportunity to weigh in."

If Philadelphia someday decides to use participatory budgeting, it would be "one component of a larger engagement process" that would include teaching residents about the trade-offs officials face when creating a budget, Adams said.

Say the city gave residents $2 million for projects, she said. "Without context about what else that $2 million could have been spent on, it's less meaningful," she said.

The heads of two groups that represent municipalities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania say that communities already offer opportunities for less formal input in the budget at public meetings and advisory committees, but that people don't come.

Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, said he doesn't see participatory budgeting happening "on any kind of widespread basis."

"People elect people; they expect them to do the job," he said.

In communities that choose participatory budgeting, officials solicit hundreds or thousands of project ideas, work with residents to develop feasible proposals, and allow them to vote on their favorite projects over several days or weeks.

When it came time for their first vote last September, residents in Freehold Borough passed up spending proposals such as free WiFi downtown, an off-leash dog park, and concrete chess tables, instead opting for "things they clearly thought they needed more than they wanted," Griffiths said.

Officials are working now to spread the word and bolster turnout. Residents will vote in September on whichever ideas they come up with in the coming months.

Chicago was the first to formalize participatory budgeting in the United States in 2009, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Participatory Budgeting Project, which gives outreach materials and technical assistance to communities.

"Often, when people think about beginning new programs, they think about looking for new resources," said Thea Crum, director of the Neighborhoods Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute, a partner of Participatory Budgeting Chicago. "One of the great things about PB is it really is just shifting how decisions are made about the same pot of money."

Officials in each community decide how much money to allocate and which residents can participate in determining how it is spent. Boston's program is restricted to 12- to 25-year-olds as part of an initiative to engage more young people in governance and create lifelong voters.

Leaders in municipalities across the country say the same, crediting participatory budgeting with pulling more people into local government and community service.

Liza Meiris believes it. The social studies teacher at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School in Frankford tried participatory budgeting this year with 7th- to 12th-grade students.

Meiris had won a $100,000, five-year grant from the National Constitution Center for a civics program and told students to choose what to do with $2,500. They campaigned for their ideas and Meiris saw their eyes "light up" at the voting stations in their school and the "I Voted" stickers.

Students chose to fund a music studio — choosing it off a ballot that also included proposals to improve the restrooms, establish hallway stations to fill water bottles, and update gym equipment.

"They were actually surprisingly on point with what the school needed," Meiris said. She plans to continue the program.

"Every school should do this. Every community should do this. Every city," she added. "I would talk to them for an hour about why they should do this and why this is the future."