This is budget planning season for cities and towns all across Connecticut. From the largest cities like Bridgeport and Hartford, to the smallest towns like Canaan and Eastford, no matter where you live in Connecticut, between now and June your town will decide on its budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
Most of us are used to not having much of a voice in the budget planning process and in deciding how our taxpayer dollars are spent. We may have the opportunity to go to a public hearing about an already proposed budget and some of us can vote on a final budget referendum, but very few of us can participate in the actual planning and decision making for what is arguably the most important process of the year.
That’s because our form of government is primarily a representative democracy, where we elect representatives to make laws and policies, including budgets. In this form of government, our elected representatives have most of the decision-making power on everything including the annual budget.
But there is another way.
Participatory democracy is a different approach. Participatory democracy can be applied to the annual budget planning process in Connecticut cities and towns. One way to do this is through participatory budgeting (PB), a process originated in Brazil more than 30 years ago and now used in thousands of communities across the globe. The Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization based in New York City, defines PB as “…a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money…The New York Times calls PB ‘revolutionary civics in action’ – it deepens democracy, builds stronger communities, and creates a more equitable distribution of public resources.”
The United States has been slow to adopt PB but in the past ten to 15 years we have begun to catch on. First used in Chicago and New York, PB is now happening in some form in dozens of communities throughout the nation. In most cases, city and town governments identify a portion of the municipal budget and residents enter into a community engagement process in which they propose project ideas to be funded. Which projects actually receive funding is decided by a community vote. As a result, ordinary people have a direct voice in how public funds are spent.
The first city in Connecticut to use PB was Hartford, where it is known as Hartford Decide$. Begun in 2016, over the past six years thousands of Hartford residents have decided how to spend nearly $1.3 million from Hartford’s capital budget. They have decided to spend money to improve parks, create community gardens, plant trees at several schools, paint public murals, purchase laptops for libraries, improve senior centers, and support several other projects. All of the project ideas came from residents.
Any Hartford resident 13 years of age and up, including residents who are not U.S. citizens, have been invited to participate and have made valuable contributions to Hartford Decide$. Including them strengthens the democratic process and broadens community participation, instilling civic values in potential future voters in general elections.
Commenting in a 2020 press release, Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said “We are so proud of our student winners. Through the Hartford Decide$ process, they learned how to examine community needs, brainstorm project ideas, and develop those ideas into full proposals that will benefit Hartford. These student leaders have demonstrated impressive skills that will prepare them for college and life.”
The annual budget planning process is happening right now in cities and towns across the state. How can you have a direct voice in deciding how public, taxpayer dollars will be spent?
If you live in Hartford, you can get involved with Hartford Decide$ (@hartforddecides or 860-936-0851). Now is the time to suggest project ideas for the community vote that will take place in June. And let Hartford’s Mayor and City Council know that you appreciate having this opportunity.
If you live elsewhere in Connecticut, talk with your local elected officials and ask them how they plan to give you a direct voice in how to spend public money in your city or town. Talk with local civic organizations and your neighbors about their interest in starting PB in some form. Look for a way to create a first step. Even if you start small this year, it can be the beginning of something greater in the future.
If every city and town in the state found a way to begin using participatory budgeting in some form, in time we would see a transformation of the way democracy works throughout Connecticut.
Richard Frieder of New Hartford is a Member of the CT Mirror Community Editorial Board.