By Jon McCabe
When considering the way forward, many in Amherst tend to engage in binary thinking. We play one value or priority against another. A school against a library, a fire station against a school, one budget item against another, preservation versus economic development. The thinking tends to be zero-sum.
That said, current town leadership has made real progress in taking a more holistic or organic approach to planning and problem-solving. The position taken by Town Council and the Town Manager on the four major capital projects is a good example of this. Instead of playing one project against the other in a self-defeating zero-sum game, they recognized that state funding ($13.8 million for the Jones renovation and more than $30 million for the elementary school project) should be considered a major contribution to Amherst’s capital needs as a whole. State funding for two much-needed capital projects frees up town funds to cover the cost of two other essential projects, building a new fire station and a public works headquarters, that do not have access to state funding. Instead of zero-sum thinking, this approach seeks to creatively grow the capital budget pie.
The recently concluded Amherst Commission on Participatory Budgeting was required by Section 10.11 of the new town charter. As a member of the commission, I was glad to see that we considered a similar strategy when thinking about the feasibility of implementing a participatory budgeting process here in town. Participatory budgeting (PB) — which I will describe in more detail in a moment — is a laudable ambition that we as a town should take seriously. Citizen participation is the hallmark of democracy, and that should include participation in budgetary decisions.
But given the budget pressures we face as a result of the Covid pandemic, and the push to implement the town capital plan, we decided that recommending a carve-out from existing capital resources to fund PB would be unrealistic. We did recommend, however, that funding request processes for the Community Preservation Act, Community Development Block Grants and the town’s Joint Capital Project Committee be simplified and better publicized to increase citizen participation.
As the commission explored what PB is and how it is implemented in a variety of communities across the country and around the world, we began to see the creative possibilities for securing new resources for the initiative beyond reliance on the town’s annual budget.
First, let’s describe what PB is. In brief, it is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making in which ordinary people are invited to decide how to allocate a part of a municipal budget. Typically, these are capital expenditures or one-time operating expenses. As implemented in places like Cambridge and New York City, a designated funding pot is made available to elicit project proposals from citizens to meet small-scale local needs. Project selections are then vetted for feasibility and
affordability and then voted on by the public. Cambridge’s most recent PB cycle funded projects ranging from urban micro forests to pedestrian controlled cross-walks: https://pb.cambridgema.gov/pbcycle7 .
PB efforts have garnered considerable attention in recent years from both academia and the philanthropic world. At a time when democracy has come under attack at home and abroad, PB is viewed by many as a way to promote and expand grass roots political participation. PB has become an area of study in both public policy and political science programs across the country. The PB Commission recommended that the town pursue possible collaborations with our Five College partners as a way to leverage our unique position as a multiple college town.
PB collaborations could include securing seed funding from our college partners or in-kind contributions through faculty release time or credit-bearing student internships to help staff the development and implementation of PB processes in town. Faculty could also be instrumental in helping secure philanthropic support for PB. The Robert Wood Johnson and Geraldine R. Dodge foundations, for example, have provided significant funding to promote PB processes in towns across the state of New Jersey. Grant writing is now an essential requirement for academics seeking tenure. We can leverage that and offer opportunities for town/gown collaborations.
Most important, an entrepreneurial approach to PB would seek to get away from zero-sum thinking about our town budget. Instead of trading one project against another, we should be looking for ways to grow the size of our overall budget pie. PB might offer an opportunity to do that.