A pilot program coming to Redwood City will give residents the opportunity to decide the fate of $1 million in city funds.
“The People’s Budget,” as it’s called, is part of Redwood City’s effort to increase transparency and community involvement in city spending. Through what’s known as a participatory budgeting process, residents will be able to submit and vote on ideas for a new, city-funded project.
“The ways that folks normally influence the budget of their municipality or their state is through voting for elected officials who then take their interest into account,” said Briana Evans, the city’s Equity and Inclusion Officer. “In participatory budgeting, there's a set of money that the people can directly decide how to use. So for Redwood City, there will be $1 million allocated for this year.”
The program officially launched on Jan. 1, with a six-week period for public engagement and input. Residents are encouraged to use an online portal to submit ideas for how they’d like to use the $1 million in allotted funds. Voting on proposed projects will begin in mid-March, and winners will be announced in June, with implementation planned for July.
With this program, Redwood City joins more than 7,000 cities worldwide, including New York and Vallejo, in launching some kind of democratic, participatory budget. Other cities have used their allotted funds to support everything from planting trees to improving homeless shelters. The Los Angeles City Council voted in December to instate their pilot program, allocating $8.5 billion to neighborhoods around the city.
According to Evans, the idea for Redwood City’s program was first floated during a meeting of the city’s Finance and Audit Subcommittee. Wanting to prioritize equity—and reach people often absent in the civic process—assistant city manager Michelle Flaherty invited Evans’ team to take over the research and planning. For the last six months, she’s been working with two fellows on her team and taking inspiration from other cities’ models to design a pilot process for the 2022-23 fiscal year. They presented their official report during the Dec. 9 Finance and Audit Subcommittee meeting.
For Evans, taking an equity-focused approach means getting as many voices involved as possible. Since early December, she’s been reaching out to local organizations and community leaders to get the word out and start sourcing ideas.
“Depending on the types of ideas that we get, the impact on equity might look really different,” Evans said.
She said she’s paying particular attention to those who have historically been marginalized in government processes, including low-income, Black and brown, LGBTQ and elderly communities.
“The most important thing is making sure that…the needs that aren't always voiced consistently at the council meetings, for instance, are being lifted up to this process,” Evans said.
So far, the response has been positive. Though public outreach has only just begun, Evans said there’s “a lot of excitement and curiosity about what might come of it.” She, too, is eager to see what kinds of ideas people come up with.
Proposed projects must be under $1 million and should be a one-time, non-recurring cost. Evans said they’re also looking for projects that are useful and accessible to a large portion of the community—in other words, nothing that requires payment to use. A walking trail, new park benches, a decorative mural or a major clean-up effort in a certain part of the city could all fit the bill.
But Evans wants people to think outside the box and get creative within the constraints.
“I'm really excited to hear the ideas that come out,” she said. “I trust in the creativity of our community, and folks knowing what would make their lives better and make the lives of their neighbors better.”
The city will evaluate all project proposals to make sure they meet the requirements, after which residents will decide on the winning project—or several smaller projects—using ranked-choice voting. Implementation of the winning project will be led by Evans’ team with support from the finance committee and other relevant city departments.
The city plans to host several information sessions in the coming weeks to educate residents about the program and start to generate ideas for potential projects. There will be in-person and virtual options, as well as digital and non-digital materials, all available in Spanish and English.
For the time being, The People’s Budget is a short-term pilot that will be evaluated at the end of the year. Because the program was made possible by new federal funds made available to Redwood City this year, Evan said, “We don't know what it will look like in the future.”
But if all goes well, she added, it could eventually become a regular feature of Redwood City’s governance, allowing residents to take on ever more ambitious projects.
“If this pilot is a success, hopefully we'll be able to try it again in the future.”
Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.