Budgeting for Democracy

How one community is campaigning for greater resident control of public resources.

How does a struggling old mill city with a dysfunctional public life use the energy of its “newcomer” Latino population to become a hotbed of progressive civic engagement practices?

Lawrence, Massachusetts was founded by the Essex Company in 1847 as a center of textile production, and during its first 75 years became the “woolen and worsted capital of the world” – only to decline into stagnation over the next 75.

In 1999, a reborn community development corporation, Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW), emerged from local organizing work and began connecting residents around a broad-based revitalization strategy for the city. One recent focus of this work has been a resident-led City Budget Campaign to catalyze community participation in the budget process and to change the way decisions are made about local resource allocation.

The Campaign grew out of LCW’s unique approach to community organizing, called Network Organizing. (See Shelterforce #140.) The approach builds mutually supportive relationships among Lawrence residents and creates an environment that offers multiple ways to engage in community revitalization. It emphasizes participation based on mutual value, and helps residents practice deliberation skills and apply them through collective action to improve their lives and their community. Seen through this lens, the budget campaign is part of an effort to repopulate public life in Lawrence and create citywide habits of democratic participation.

Questioning the City Budget

In the summer of 2003, the LCW primary organizing and outreach strategy, NeighborCircles (resident-facilitated conversations about issues facing the neighborhood), revealed deep interest among residents in the abandoned alleyways and vacant lots that plagued the city’s North Common neighborhood (LCW’s primary target area for physical redevelopment). That summer, residents led strenuous cleanup operations in an attempt to reclaim those eyesores as public assets. They dragged out huge piles of trash, car parts, refrigerators, tires, even an old steel bridge beam, that had accumulated over decades of neglect and illegal dumping. When the city refused to collect the trash, claiming no responsibility for cleanup, the situation set off a debate over ownership of the alleyways between the city and the successor corporation to the Essex Company. Residents were caught in the middle, the trash was piling up and the city was fining the neighbors.

Sandra Mouzon, a long-time resident and member of LCW’s Poder Leadership Institute, lives right next to one of those alleys. “We had to pay for our own dumpster, since the city never volunteered to help us get one for the cleanups,” she says. “And just after the cleanup, city inspectors started walking through the now cleaned alley and ticketing people for stuff they had stored in their own backyards – the ones who were trying to make a difference.”

The Poder Leadership Institute began in 2004 to train emerging leaders to become more effective in revitalizing the city. As part of their work, Mouzon and other members of the Institute’s 2004 class organized a march to city hall to demand better sanitation services. The group was granted an audience with the mayor that same day. Alex Piña, a member of the group, remembers, “The mayor was more like an annoyed parent. He was as accepting as he could be, considering that we had just embarrassed him in front of a mayoral delegation from Puerto Rico [that he was hosting that day]. When we asked about residents being told that there was no money in the budget to support cleanup efforts, all he could say was that he would look into it. I don’t think he was happy at all and he was surprised that we had gone that far to get his attention.”

The mayor expressed his intention to support community-led cleanup efforts, but he gave no indication of how this would happen and where the money would come from to fund it. Poder alumni and other residents began asking: Who decides on the budget for sanitation services? How do they make that decision? Questions about trash led to questions about snow removal, which led to questions about street repair and after-school programs. If the city was spending money, how come things didn’t change? The group realized that the issue here wasn’t just trash; it was the way the city was making decisions about how to spend its money. The issue was the budget.

The Poder alumni decided to find out more about the budget and the decision-making process, but getting a copy of the actual budget document wasn’t so easy. Yordy Ureña, a then 17-year-old Poder alumnus, went to city hall to look for it. “We went to the city clerk’s office, and they looked at us like we had 10 heads when we asked about the budget. They sent us to another office and then to the library,” Yordy explains. The group finally got a copy of the budget from a librarian who had been saving them in a dusty storage area.

With the budget in hand, the alumni found that it contained hundreds of pages of numbers and obscure terminology but no explanation of how spending figures were determined. There was no statement of overall goals for spending or any description of a clear vision for the city’s future.

“As concerned citizens, we need and we have the right to know how our tax dollars are being spent,” says Janice Vargas, a member of Poder 2004. “We need to understand why it is sometimes so hard to fund social programs that benefit the community, like after-school or affordable housing. But most of us are not accountants. The budget document is hard to understand to the average resident. If we can’t understand it and no one can explain it, how are we going to know if our money is being used well? How are we going to hold our elected officials accountable?”

In January 2005, the Institute’s first two classes joined forces. The group decided to create a guide that would explain what the city budget is, why it’s important and how the community can make it better. Their goal was to analyze the budget, put it in terms most people could understand and compare resident and official budget priorities.

The editorial committee enlisted the help of Philip Moss, a faculty member at the Regional, Economic and Social Development department at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. “The budget is a reflection of our values and priorities because it shows where we put our public resources. In its ideal form, the budget expresses a positive vision of the city’s future. The Lawrence budget certainly didn’t express that kind of vision,” says Moss, chair of the department.

The committee members went door-to-door to talk to other residents and get them involved, and to find out where they thought the city should spend its money. “I learned a lot,” says Ivelisse Rentas, who attended a house meeting about the budget that her mother, Marta, facilitated with other Poder members. “I never knew what the budget was about. We talked about how they were spending money on all these things – schools, streets, buildings. But we weren’t seeing anything change in the neighborhood.”

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

The committee decided it was important to talk to the mayor and explain their intentions. “We wanted the mayor’s approval for the project. We wanted him to feel comfortable with it and understand that we were doing something productive, not only for the community, [but] for the city government as well,” says Marta Rentas. “He was very positive about it and told us to feel free to interview his department heads about the budget. His participation allowed us to move ahead and produce the guide.”

Aguedo Cotto, a Poder member, went to city hall to talk to the head of Inspectional Services. “She told us that pretty much every year she would take the budget from the year before, make some cuts because she had to, and submit that as her budget. No one from her department was asking any residents about the services or what could be done differently, but she said it would be really helpful if they could find out which services are working and which aren’t.”

After many meetings and hours of research and writing, the Poder 2005 class presented Our Money, Our Future, Our Right to Know: The People’s Guide to the Lawrence City Budget at their September graduation. The Guide is a 72-page bilingual publication that sheds light on the city’s three major budgets – operating, capital improvement, and CDBG and HOME funds. It explains where the money comes from for each budget, what it funds, who decides how it’s spent and what opportunities there are for residents to get involved. The Guide also explores the city’s investment in after-school programming and adult education (two issues important to residents) and refers to models in other cities.

The Budget Debate

Since it was an election year, the graduates invited all of the mayoral candidates and the incumbent to the graduation to publicly hand them copies of the Guide and to ask them to participate in a mayoral debate on the Lawrence budget. Two weeks before the local election, LCW and Poder, in partnership with four other local nonprofits, sponsored the debate.

Two hundred and fifty community members listened to incumbent Mayor Michael Sullivan and his challenger, City Councilor Marcos Devers, discuss the budget and its process. For the first time in Lawrence history, a crowd of English, Spanish, Khmer and Vietnamese-speaking residents gathered to listen and ask questions about the budget. (There were simultaneous translations.) NPR radio personality Christopher Lydon moderated the event. “Lawrence CommunityWorks and the people of Lawrence were the real winners of this debate. They forced me, the voters, the candidates and anybody who attended this event to look at the budget in a different light – a document declaring where the city is, where it wants to go and how it affects the people,” Lydon said.

During the debate, Mayor Sullivan committed to work with LCW to improve the budget process and volunteered $25,000 to support the effort, if re-elected, but doubted how important the process was to community members. “I question how many people are really concerned about the spending plan. Citizens are more concerned about taxes going up and filling potholes. People want to see results,” he said.

After his re-election, Mayor Sullivan ratified his commitment in his keynote address at the LCW annual meeting. Poder graduate Cotto introduced the mayor to the crowd of 500 LCW members. “Questions have been raised about whether people care about the budget process,” Cotto said. “If you care about the budget process, please stand up.” In seconds, everyone was on their feet. “Mayor Sullivan,” Cotto said, “we care about the process because we care about results.”

“I felt a rush when everyone stood up,” says Maria Betances, another Poder graduate. “I was looking out at all these people, 500 of them, on their feet, making noise. I saw the mayor’s face, and I could tell he was impressed.”

That night, Sullivan signed the Budget Action Pledge, promising to attend budget forums, to “generate the necessary political will to build a better future for our city” and to commit to funding the effort.

In 2006, on the heels of the mayor’s commitment, the third Poder Leadership Institute began planning the first of three forums. The first forum would be a two-part meeting – the Mayor’s Budget Work Session (where city officials and staff would learn about different models of participatory budgeting and discuss their interests and concerns about the budget process) and the Community Meeting on the Lawrence City Budget (where residents would have the opportunity to do the same).

As the date of the meetings approached, it became clear that, although the mayor had agreed to co-sponsor the meetings, he had not yet notified any department heads or city councilors. LCW members felt that if the mayor wouldn’t turn out his own staff to a meeting about the budget process, there was little chance he’d actively work to improve it. They decided to tell the councilors themselves about the meetings. They continued to pressure the mayor to send invitation letters to the department heads, which he did five days before the event. LCW members personally delivered the letter to the departments. They saw this as a necessary compromise to keep momentum and accountability pressure building.

By the time the Mayor’s Budget Work Session started on the morning of April 11, the room was full. For the first time in Lawrence, the mayor, members of the city council and nearly every department head, along with LCW members, staff and board, met to discuss the city’s budget process and how to improve it.

The four-hour session provided insight into how budgeting works in each department. For instance, the library director wondered how to explain fixed and variable costs to people and have them understand just how much it costs to run the library at a basic level. The fire chief highlighted the need for informed participation by residents, pointing out that cuts and savings in one area may lead to greater resident expenses in other areas (e.g., lower taxes mean less revenue, which means departmental budget and service cuts, which can affect the city’s bond rating and cause home insurance rates to rise).

Participants heard from the director of budget and finance in Davenport, Iowa, who shared his city’s experience in implementing citizen-based budgeting, and from a member of St. Paul, Minnesota’s Capital Improvement Board, which is part of a longstanding citizen participation initiative. A University of Massachusetts faculty member talked about the participatory budgeting model in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which has inspired many adaptations throughout Latin America.

Several major themes emerged in the group’s discussion, and at the end of the meeting they came up with a series of next steps: surveying residents about the quality of city services; involving existing neighborhood associations and community organizations in the budgeting process; making better use of local media to report information about the budget; and educating residents about turning complaints into solutions.

“The process, in the past, hasn’t been inclusive. Today’s meeting is the first time we’ve even included ourselves in these types of discussions. It’s time to do more interfacing with people who live in the city, sharing thoughts and ideas on how we should be spending taxpayers’ money and how we are spending it,” the mayor told a reporter after the meeting.

Later in the evening, over 130 Lawrence residents and city officials attended the Community Meeting on the Lawrence City Budget. During the meeting, residents talked in groups about the budget and asked panelists about using participatory budgeting to leverage more funds, dealing with cuts, motivating people to participate and budget reporting. The mayor closed the meeting by announcing a plan to hold meetings for residents and department heads to discuss their budgets.

While the city officials’ response to the meetings was positive, city councilors expressed frustration that the mayor had not given them enough advance notice. One councilor invited LCW City Budget Campaign members to a Council meeting.

During their presentation to the councilors, Poder member Altagracia Portorreal clearly explained the campaign’s vision for a new process: “We envision a budget process for Lawrence that includes opportunities for community members to communicate needs and priorities of the people who develop the budgets, a process that educates residents about the city’s revenues and expenditures, a process that is based on a shared understanding of people’s responsibilities as citizens of Lawrence and a process that increases accountability.”

The Challenges Ahead

In Lawrence, budget decision making has always been an internal process, essentially a negotiation between the mayor and department heads, with almost no input from residents. City councilors themselves have expressed frustration over having little involvement in budget formulation. There is one public hearing where residents can comment on the budget, but it comes at the end of the process, when only cuts can be made and the document itself is used for operating purposes, not for reporting to the people of Lawrence. The primary challenge we face in this Campaign is to create a municipal budget that is shaped by resident needs and priorities. Contained in this are more far-reaching challenges to changing the nature of the city’s public life – catalyzing meaningful public participation in such decision-making processes, and sustaining the political will to support and drive the transformation.

Participation in public life should be about much more than casting ballots. It should include face-to-face decision-making processes, giving people the opportunity to learn about policy issues and to practice skills like debate and compromise that are so important to democratic life. There must be a shared vision for the city’s future and a recognition that the city budget reflects and finances this vision.

To fundamentally change the old way of doing business, there has to be great political will, combined with widespread public support and movement. As we are also learning, political will rarely springs spontaneously into being, but grows from steady public pressure and accountability. It also grows from shared experiences between city officials and residents who, working together towards common goals, build productive relationships and trust. As Poder members can testify, we fight and march when we need to. Our ultimate goal is to fundamentally change the local environment, so that resident voices determine the process and the outcomes of decisions that shape public life.

Series NavigationHallmarks of Success >>GSE Not Doing Enough? >>Thirsty for Justice >>A Community Whodunit >>All Out for Affordability >>Saving Mark-to-Market >>OTS Strikes Again >>Former Prisoners Get A Break >>Let The People Decide >>Following the Money Trail >>Building Trust >>The Second Storm >>A Little Too Blunt? >>
Alma B. Couverthié and Marianna Leavy-Sperounis are staff members of Lawrence CommunityWorks and instructors at the Poder Leadership Institute.

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