Amherst residents could get to choose what to spend town money on

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Saturday, January 11, 2020

AMHERST — Building a public lavatory, installing water-filling stations at major public squares and planting 100 new trees are among $1.13 million in projects happening in Cambridge as a result of a concept called participatory budgeting.

Although Amherst probably wouldn’t be able to dedicate as much money to such a process, a commission is beginning to examine how the Town Council could establish a similar role for residents to have a direct say, through an annual vote, in how a small portion of each year’s budget is appropriated.

The Participatory Budgeting Commission is a requirement of the town charter adopted by voters in March 2018. By Dec. 1, it is obligated to present a plan to the Town Council for how participatory budgeting could be enacted.

For Commission Chairwoman Meg Gage, who was a charter commissioner and pushed to have the idea embedded in the charter in December 2016, the strength of participatory budgeting is that a portion of the municipal or school budget each year would be in the hands of residents.

“It’s really about civic engagement and participation, and getting young people to understand budgeting and how our town works,” Gage said.

Community members would develop ideas and proposals, she said, which would then be reviewed by town staff. Those considered viable could then appear on a ballot, with supporters campaigning for certain projects.

In many cases of participatory budgeting, people younger than 18 are welcome to come up with proposals in categories such as environment and youth activities, advocate for them and then vote on them.

Gage said participatory budgeting remains a relatively recent phenomenon, first developed in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. In Porto Alegre, as many as 50,000 people have participated each year to decide how to spend up to 20% of the city budget.

In Cambridge, the eight projects were selected from 20, with each of the 7,602 residents 12 and over who participated able to vote for up to five projects. Gage said a community doesn’t have to be large to do participatory budgeting, observing that Kingston, New York has done it.

She foresees challenges to the idea, including that with tight budgets, setting a specific dollar amount, or a percentage of the municipal budget, might be a difficult sell, and there will likely be concerns from councilors about relinquishing some of their decision-making power over real money.

But Gage points out that Amherst already has some experience with allowing input to the capital plan each year, where residents can submit proposals that are vetted by the Joint Capital Planning Committee, alongside projects and purchases that are brought forward by department heads and the schools.

The difference, Gage said, is that participatory budgeting would allow residents to have the final say, rather than the committee members.

Gage said it’s possible that the town council will not adopt whatever the commission develops, but she hopes councilors are open-minded, adding that one of her concerns is there are no strategies or mechanisms for getting young people involved in town government.

People are welcome to attend commission meetings, scheduled for the second and third Thursday of each month, typically at 4 p.m. at Town Hall.

“This is about giving a shot to participatory democracy and having people think about what they would like to see happen in Amherst,” Gage said.