Residents get more power in allocating ARPA dollars with participatory budgeting model

The City of Grand Rapids is using a new model, the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), that will give residents more say in how its $2 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds will be spent. According to the PBP website, “the Participatory Budgeting Project empowers people to decide together how to spend public money. We create and support participatory budgeting processes that deepen democracy, build stronger communities and make public budgets more equitable and effective.”

“It’s recommended as the best practice when doing this work,” says the city’s Assistant City Manager, Doug Matthews. “One of the unique things about participatory budgeting, it matters less what I am thinking and more what the representatives of the community are thinking. Each community has their own ideas, what they want to see happen.”

The process began in early June when the City Commission formed three steering committees, one for each ward. Two residents from each ward will serve on their ward’s committee. The committees will plan and guide public engagement in order to generate ideas for the ARPA-funded projects by the end of September. Together, the community will create the rules and engagement plan, brainstorm project ideas, develop ideas into workable proposals and then vote on the proposals that best serve their ward’s needs.

“As of this morning [June 15], six of nine appointees have been appointed,” Matthews says. “Once they are oriented, they will have a lot of rein as to who else they bring in for the process and how the process gets executed. This is a new thing for Grand Rapids and for the community in general. Regardless of their philosophies that they bring to the table, all will need a real dedication to seeing this through. It is not a small ask by any stretch of the imagination.”

The funds are being distributed based on demographic and economic factors in each ward. The Third Ward, south of Wealthy Street and east of Jefferson and Eastern Avenues, will receive $1 million; the First Ward, west of the Grand River, Jefferson and Eastern Avenues, $600,000; and the Second Ward, north of Wealthy Street and east of the Grand River and Jefferson Avenue, will receive $400,000.

“We need to recognize that, first of all, this ARPA funding’s intent is to address the economic and health impacts of COVID-19,” Matthews says. “We’ve seen that both the economic and health impacts have been different based on income, ethnicity, race and geography. So, those are some of the things we tried to take into consideration when we determined how the funding is divided up.”

The committees will align the projects they develop to address five priority areas — violence reduction, public safety co-response, housing affordability, broadband access and COVID-19 economic impacts.

“These priority areas and parameters are provided for guidance, not limitations. We want this to be as open a call as possible. We can go back and see how any idea fits with the parameters of the governmental requirements … and that leaves a lot of ground to cover,” Matthews says. “Even if the ideas don’t fit within this particular project, that’s good information for us to have in general. Sometimes the problems we believe are at the top of the list for people living in a Ward might be different than what they share.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids
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