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Activists call for increase in participatory budget

Push for $40 million falls short in Boston City Council votes

Tanisha Bhat

Organizations in Boston are advocating for city councilors to allot more money for community projects and needs in the city’s next budget. The process — known as participatory budgeting — allows for community members to decide how to spend part of a public budget and gives residents of a city some control over how tax dollars are spent.

Originally, Mayor Michelle Wu set aside $2 million, within the total $4.28 billion budget for fiscal year 2024, to be spent according to the community’s discretion, but advocates are calling for that allocation to be increased to $40 million.

As of the Boston City Council meeting June 7, amendments made to the budget would have increased this amount to $20 million. It is not clear, however, if this increase will hold up, as the entire budget did not ultimately pass after two city councilors reversed their original “yes” votes.

At-large Councilor Julia Mejia told the Banner she agreed that $2 million is not enough to address the needs of the community.

“We started off with $40 million and we went down to $20 million. And now we’re negotiating down to $10 million. Our community needs to have access to capital so that they can decide how they want to utilize those funds. A million or two million is not enough,” Mejia said.

Mejia added that she does not want to “water down” the power of the people in order to appease the opposition and the strong mayoral hold in Boston.

“It’s important for us to recognize that we’re not being irresponsible, but there was a lot of unspent money on the table, and we want to make sure that we use those dollars in ways that meet this moment,” she said.

As a result of a ballot measure passed in 2021, the city is creating a new Office of Participatory Budgeting that is responsible for creating a fair decision-making process where all Boston residents can participate in the budget.

Within the $2 million originally allocated to this office, approximately $240,000 would be spent on hiring a new director and additional staff — leaving a remaining $1.7 million toward actual community-decided projects, according to budget documents.

Right to the City Boston, an organization focused on the needs of working-class communities and communities of color in Boston, is one of the many organizations advocating for the increase in funds for participatory budgeting.

Vicki DiLorenzo, the executive director of the organization, told the Banner the $2 million allocation is “nowhere near enough.”

“It’s really just not a serious proposal. It’s kind of in line with what very small cities allocate for participatory budgeting that have a small fraction of the population and budget of Boston,” she said. “Our demand has been 1 percent of the city budget, which would be $40 million.”

Khalil Howe, one of the lead organizers of the Youth Justice & Power Union, said his organization is fighting to divest money from the police department and invest it back into communities.

“We’re all very angry,” Howe said in response to the vote reversal. “We know that there’s a disproportionate amount of money in the police budget as opposed to other alternatives in the budget. So we’re just like, ‘They’re not listening to us.’”

DiLorenzo said her organization is not advocating for the allocation to be spent on a particular cause, but rather whatever the community decides is worthy.

“It’ll ultimately be the community that provides the answer to the question of where the money should go, but people aren’t going to want to be part of a process that is not allocating a meaningful amount of money, and that’s our main concern at this point,” she said.

Howe said his organization has gone to every Council hearing on the budget and has held rallies pushing for the allocation to increase.

“The community has come out and spoken multiple times. We know that there’s enough money to do this,” he said. “Councilor (Brian) Worrell and Councilor (Gabriela) Coletta reversed their votes after we left, and that left a really bad taste in our mouth. So we’re still petitioning and trying to move that money.”

DiLorenzo added that she is not sure what will happen at the next Council meeting on the budget but hopes that Wu follows through on her campaign promises.

“We expect this mayor, who ultimately has a huge amount of control over the budget process, to deliver on the spirit of the campaign she ran, which is to involve the community deeply in governing,” she said, “and participatory budgeting is a huge part
of that.”