HALIFAX – Kevin Feltmate recently had an idea for how to better use Conrose Park. The park (by Saint Mary’s Boat Club) has one of the best views in the city, but hardly a resident spends time there to enjoy the view. It features an empty 14’ by 16’ empty slab of cement where a flagpole once stood. With little more than a bench and a shelter, that cement could become the foundation for exactly the kind of public space that park needs.
A simple, good idea can (strangely) be harder to fund than expensive ones. To be somewhat simplistic, politicians want projects that are large and attention-grabbing. Bureaucrats want ideas to fit into their own investment strategies. Charitable foundations want ideas that match the grand narrative of what they work on.
Where is the funding for small, straight-forward, good ideas?
District 7 Councillor Waye Mason’s participatory budgeting program is one solution. Each of HRM’s 16 councillors has $94,000 of discretionary spending money available to them. In practice, this money has generally gone to good causes, but in a democracy, such spending should never be based on such personal whims.
On April 16, Mason held his second annual voting day for how the funds should be divvied up. Any groups can make a funding proposal and put it on display at an afternoon event, and any resident is welcome to come and vote on which ones should receive funding. In this way, a small, worthwhile idea need not fit anyone else’s priorities. It just needs to convince fellow residents.
For Mason, the most beneficial aspect of this approach is the connections made between residents at the voting event itself. The funds are a great motivator for dozens of residents (over 200 this year) to come out and see other community projects happening in their neighbourhood. Many have become volunteers as a by-product. “We’re never going to allow voting online,” Mason says. “It’s that opportunity for residents to see what each other are doing that really makes this whole thing worthwhile.”
Feltmate’s idea did not receive funding, but he feels that the process of pitching it may help it to happen nonetheless: “The presentation of the idea at the event was a catalyst for awareness which helped others understand the utility of the property.”
Mason argues this system also removes the unfair advantage enjoyed by groups that personally know their councillor (or who have connections with any other source of funding). Ideas either convince residents or they do not.
There was, however, a hiccup this year. Only four groups received funding because the most expensive proposals received the most votes.
While this outcome was democratic, there are good reasons to place a funding cap, and Mason intends to place a $20,000 limit next year.
One of these projects received funding because they motivated some 50 allies to come out and vote. But if the impact on the total money available for any one project is limited, such a “get-out-the-vote” effort is a good thing, because it means more residents discovering each other’s projects. Each one must also vote for four other projects as well.
Without a funding limit, however, a few expensive projects with access to enough volunteers can undermine the system. And without it, this process also cannot address the underserved niche described above: all those small, humble projects that do not fit easily within any funding agency’s mandate but that may have a big impact on quality of life.
The Future of Participatory Budgeting in Halifax
Perhaps the more important longterm impact of this exercise is that it shows residents and city staff that the idea works. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where participatory budgeting first launched, as much as 20% of the yearly budget is now voted on by some 50,000 public participants.
One way to re-engage residents in municipal politics is to let them decide things that actually matter. People may also better understand local politics if they have to make difficult decisions between priorities themselves.
If we follow Mason’s lead and require that residents come out in person, we can enjoy the added benefit of more residents meeting each other and volunteering to work on solutions themselves.
The city is already making babe steps in a more participatory direction. This was the first year that residents were invited to speak on each department’s budget before it they are voted on by council.
The city’s current budget hearings, however, are wholly inadequate. The time for residents to speak comes after other council business and so residents have to sacrifice their entire day if they want five minutes to speak, and councillors may or may not choose to listen. Better than nothing, but just barely.
Mason’s participatory budgeting model provides a compelling vision of how residents can matter in decision-making. As he puts it, “this is a thin wedge of a much larger thing.”
Editor’s Note: Councillor Jennifer Watts is initiating her own participatory budgeting exercise for District 8. The first meeting will be May 7th, 7 – 9pm at the Italian Cultural Centre, 2629 Agricola St. Please click here to find out more.