Before Democratic state lawmakers and Governor Jerry Brown reached agreement Monday on key state budget items, they fended off GOP legislators, huddled with lobbyists, negotiated with interest groups, studied polls and gathered anecdotal evidence of the popular will.
But they lacked what the once-bankrupt city of Vallejo had for its budget deliberations—a Top 12 list of preferences from the residents.
Everybody loves a list, and Vallejo seems to love theirs. The city set up a pilot program called Participatory Budgeting Vallejo to help decide how to spend a $3.2 billion portion of Measure B, a one-cent sales tax passed in November 2011. The other 70% of Measure B money is earmarked for police, street repair and other projects deemed essential by the city.
After a series of assemblies in November, a list of 33 budget priorities emerged and last month every resident 16 and older was allowed to vote for six of them. Felons, non-U.S. residents and people living in unincorporated areas of Vallejo were also allowed to vote.
3,917 residents in a city of 110,000 cast their ballots and the top vote-getter, Potholes and Street Repair (pdf), dominated with 2,298 votes at a cost of $550,000. The most expensive item on the list, Parks and Recreation Improvement (pdf) ($621,500), finished third in the balloting with 1,323 votes.
The list will be submitted to the city council, which will make the final decisions.
Participatory budgeting (pdf), a policy-making process that directly involves citizens, was inspired by municipal experiments in Brazil beginning in the 1980s. Chicago and New York City have tried in on a limited basis.
Vallejo became a pioneer in the process just two years after emerging from bankruptcy and not everybody is on board with the concept. Mayor Osby Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle that with the police force down to 88 officers from a high of 140, “This is not the time to fund whatever we want.”