Commentary: Don’t wait to the end to have say in public budgets

Picture this: It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. Ten residents have already spoken, and 20 more line up waiting their turn to talk.

One by one they step up to the podium — some to talk about a lack of transparency, others with questions about funding decisions, all of them wanting to be heard, pleading for collaboration.

There are millions of dollars, mostly their tax money, being allocated and distributed, and this is only their second time being heard.

Each year, cities determine how tax dollars will be spent. Government budgets, from the very local all the way to the federal level, are debated by elected officials. These officials decide what is best for their residents, and input from their constituents is usually a final step in the process.

Our current budgeting practices don’t make it a priority to include residents but that can and should change. The budgeting process, rather than being complicated and frustrating, could have a foundation of community involvement. That is what a “participatory budget” is designed to create.

A participatory budget creates a committee of neighbors who work with experts to develop proposals on how discretionary funds should be spent. Committee members present their ideas and the city votes on them, and whatever receives the most votes is implemented.

It may sound revolutionary to say that people have the ability to directly decide how part of a budget should be set. But, if everyone is impacted, it makes sense that everyone should have a say.

From county, city, ward and school board, residents are investing into their community and bringing the change they want to see each fiscal cycle. New York City scaled its civic engagement through a participatory budget by allocating $30 million to fund air conditioning in all city schools.

In Chicago, residents created small business loan programs, park improvements and street resurfacing. Cambridge, Mass., voted for trees, water foundations in parks and firefighters. The Youth Council in Meridian, Idaho, used allocated funds to put gym equipment in their parks.

Residents across the nation, in communities of all sizes, have come together regardless of race, religion, gender or creed through the participatory budget process. It involves and invigorates everyone in a community, and gives a voice to those who feel they aren’t heard. Participatory budgeting increases civic engagement, creates a strong, transparent community with trust in elected officials and, most importantly, it brings equity and equality into the conversation.

In more than 200 districts, 30 cities and 25 school districts, communities have better transparency and understanding of what is happening around them because they participated in the change.

This is the kind of community I want to build. I’m a leader who won’t be afraid to let residents in on making hard decisions. In fact, it’s essential for us to all listen, participate, and empower each other and bridge our differences, that what will move us forward. If we truly invest in our community, we make it a better place to live. If leaders invest in us, we can all move forward.

Natalie Pinkney

Natalie Pinkney is at at-large candidate for South Salt Lake City Council.

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