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Activists weigh in on participatory budgeting

Mayor still working out details of how budgeting process will work

Isaiah Thompson

Ordinary Boston residents will likely have new ability to shape a portion of the city’s roughly $4 billion operating budget starting this year, via a process known as participatory budgeting. What that process will look like — how exactly it will work, what kind of participation it will involve, and to what extent it will represent real power over the budget — remains to be seen.

Participatory budgeting was first approved by Boston voters by ballot referendum in 2021, as part of a ballot measure that also gave City Council members more authority over the annual budget put forward by the mayor each spring.

This January, Mayor Michelle Wu introduced a proposed ordinance that, if passed by the Council, will create a city Office of Participatory Budgeting, including a director and “external oversight board composed of residents and leaders from across the city,” whose job will be to “establish and manage a participatory budgeting process for residents to both engage with the city’s annual budget process and make recommendations for projects to include in the budget.”

Several details, including potential amendments to the mayor’s proposed ordinance, remained unclear as of press time, with the ordinance still in a Council committee and subject to change, and with advocates for the measure still pressing for changes to the language put forward by Wu. But Committee on Government Operations chair Ricardo Arroyo said an amended measure will likely be put to a vote before the full Council on Feb. 8. 

The concept of participatory budgeting is not new — the phrase dates back about 30 years — and has gained momentum in cities around the world and across the United States, including next door to Boston, in Cambridge.

In principle, the concept involves direct participation by residents in the budgeting process, which in Boston begins with the mayor’s proposing a new fiscal budget every spring and a subsequent series of public hearings, negotiations and debates by City Council members, who must ultimately approve, amend or reject the budget by the start of the city’s next fiscal year, July 1.

Participatory budgeting would, in theory, add a third party to that back-and-forth process: the residents of Boston.

“Communities have always had a way to engage in the budgeting process, but it was very hard for people to access,” said Mimi Ramos, executive director of New England United for Justice and interim director of Right to the City Boston, a coalition of groups pushing for participatory budgeting, including advocating amendments to the mayor’s proposal.

“Participatory budgeting forces us to think differently about the voices at the center of the decisions that need to be made around resources,” said Ramos. “And it provides a space for residents to really have a deeper conversation about what is really needed in their neighborhood, with real resources to back it up.

What shape that process will take is largely yet to be written. Wu’s ordinance establishes a city office, director and oversight board — but says little about what the process that office will oversee will actually look like.

The board would be tasked with, among other things, creating a “rule book” according to which the new process will proceed. Proponents expect procedures to take the form of public meetings, or “assemblies,” in which residents will ultimately vote, in some form, on formal allocations of some portion of the city budget, as well as broader recommendations for how the entire operating budget will be spent.

Advocates, meanwhile, are pushing for various changes to the mayor’s proposal, among them increasing the number of board members from the nine proposed by Wu.

“We want a board that is reflective of our communities and the diverse perspectives from residents on the ground,” said Ramos.

Her coalition also wants to see a stipend paid to board members and grant funding for community groups to facilitate public engagement.

And, crucially, the groups are pushing for a final ordinance that would, at least in theory, ensure that the new process has real sway over the city’s budget. The advocates want language clarifying that decisions made via participatory budgeting are binding, as well as an explicit monetary set-aside, written into city law, guaranteeing that a non-trivial portion of the city’s budget is subject to participatory budgeting.

Ramos says the coalition is pushing for that amount to be roughly 1% of the operating budget, or about $40 million.

“I certainly understand why as advocates you would want to make sure you have a set amount of capital that you’re directing, that is substantive and worth everybody’s time,” said Arroyo. “There should be some amount they can depend on.”

At-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, a committee member, agreed.

“It has to be meaningful,” said Louijeune. “It has to be something that can actually move the needle.”

While the ordinance could become law as soon as this week, it is unlikely that the participatory budgeting process it outlines will have much impact on the budget process set to begin this spring. Advocates hope to begin the participatory process as soon as this fall around the city’s Fiscal 2025 budget.