Mayor’s Office lays out options for $30 million participatory budgeting program

Today Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington sent the City Council a letter laying out two potential options for moving forward with the proposed $30 million participatory budgeting program this year, while highlighting the numerous logistical, budget and legal issues that will need to be sorted out.

Last month the controversial Black Brilliance Research Project submitted its final report, including a section on recommendations for how to proceed with a participatory budgeting program to distribute $30 million in city funds to build community-based public safety solutions.  As PubliCola first reported, the researchers also submitted a proposed budget that allocated $8.3 million of the $30 million to overhead and administration — a ridiculously high amount of overhead for a grant program.

Deputy Mayor Washington’s letter today notes that while Councilmember Morales has been working her her and other city departments on a more realistic plan, at the end of the day the effort is gated on the Council’s release of the $30 million in funds, which it froze under a proviso that only it can lift once it is happy with the plan. Washington’s letter provides two options for how to administer the process: one that closely follows the research project recommendations and is estimated to cost $7,475,000 of the $30 million, or one mostly run by the Department of Neighborhoods at a more reasonable overhead of $2,630,000.

The first option would involve contracting with a third-party organization, probably a community-based organization, to act as administrator. That administrator would hire a 25-person steering committee, paying each one a full year’s salary of approximately $112,000 inclusive of benefits. The option would also include providing the administrator the funds needed to reduce barriers to community members’ participation, as well as funds for administrative, data and logistical support.

The second option assumes that the Department of Neighborhoods would administer the process. There would be a 15-member steering committee, paid $75 per hour as independent contractors.

The letter suggests that the first option would take 11-18 months to complete the participatory budgeting program, including 4-7 months to solicit and sign a contract with the third party administrator; 1-2 months to hire the steering committee; and then 6-10 months to run the actual participatory budgeting process.  The second option would take slightly less time at 9-14 months: 2-4 months to select and sign contracts with the steering committee; one month for onboarding, then 6-10 months to run the participatory budgeting process. Either way, it looks like the participatory budgeting program will run well into 2022 before it gets money out the door.

Washington’s letter also acknowledges that the City Council might have its own ideas for how the process should be run and can codify that in an ordinance releasing the funds.

But much of the letter is devoted to laying out the numerous issues, both logistical and legal, that will need to be sorted out. Among the administrative and logistical concerns:

  • The criteria for steering committee members in the Black Brilliance report are extremely prescriptive — perhaps too prescriptive to meet the city’s inclusion criteria and to ensure city-wide representation.
  • Paying the steering committee members sets a precedent for all of the other volunteer boards and commissions, one that could have substantial budget consequences if the city is pressed to treat them all the same.
  • At the same time, paying the steering committee members also creates issues of pay equity with the city employees who will work alongside them in supporting roles. This is somewhat ironic, given that the argument for paying for steering committee members is because otherwise they would be unpaid volunteers working alongside paid city employees.
  • If a third-party administrator is hired, it may take considerable time for it to hire 25 steering committee members. The letter cites that statistic that a community-based organization typically takes 1-3 months to hire a single employee.
  • Projects that are selected by the voters in the participatory budgeting program may still need to be bid out, which will take more time and process.
  • A realistic implementation timeline — and what happens if/when it slides out into 2022.
  • The process for evaluating projects ahead of voting, particularly if the program is administered by the Department of Neighborhoods instead of an outside community-based organization.

The letter also observes that since the original proposal was created without input from the City Attorney’s Office, there are plenty of legal issues that have not been addressed. They include:

  • Both proposals avoid hiring on steering committee members as city employees, given the numerous complications that would entail. But if the steering committee work is performed in a manner that essentially creates an employer-employee relationship, then their status as independent contractors could be challenged in court — leaving the city on the hook to provide additional employment benefits.
  • The criteria for steering committee members might be illegal: they could violate the state Initiative 200, which says “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
  • There are legal risks around the proposed rules for who is eligible to vote in the participatory budgeting program.
  • There are legal risks around possible violations of the state constitution’s prohibition on gifts of public funds. This could affect some of the proposed investments to lower barriers to participation, including giving away 5000 laptops. It could also implicate some of the programs that are proposed through the participatory budgeting program itself.

In the end, Deputy Mayor Washington’s letter doesn’t provide a specific recommendation for a path forward, but (perhaps fittingly) leaves it for the Council to decide how it wants to move this along while offering the support of the executive branch. “I know we are all equally committee to ensuring they are implemented in a thoughtful and legal manner that maximizes our ability to change outcomes and disparities while being transparent using $30 million of public resources.”

In the meantime, the Mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative task force, which is working on parallel recommendations for another $30 million of investments in community safety, seems to have found its stride. Its meetings are still not open to the public (and thus it is not taking public comment either), but it is publishing the agendas and minutes after the fact. The minutes from its most recent meeting, March 19, suggest that it is aiming for draft recommendations on investments by mid-April — several months, at least, ahead of the participatory budgeting program.  The task force members appear to have settled upon four theme areas: housing/land acquisition, education, health, and business development. It also appears that the task force has determined a weighted scoring system for recommendations:

  • Long term (multi-year) / Scaffolded or phased investment…….…………. 10%
  • Short-term / “Immediate” human needs like housing and food vs. “Protracted” concerns such as wealth building and entrepreneurship  ……………………………………….….. 10%
  • Investing in cross-cutting issues that indirectly impact priority areas …..10%
  • High Impact………………………….…………………………………………….…………15%
  • Highest Degree of Disproportionality ……………….……………..……………….40%
  • Combined (addressing more than 1 or 2 priority areas) …………………….15%


This is a fairly dramatic turnaround from last fall when the Council scoffed at the Mayor’s task force and cut its proposed funding from the original $100 million down to $30 million. Six months later, one wonders if some Councilmembers aren’t asking themselves whether they should walk away from the Participatory Budgeting program altogether given the less-than-spectacular outcome of the Black Brilliance Research Project, the unrealistic recommendations for participatory budgeting that resulted from that effort, and the numerous budgetary, logisitical and legal hurdles that still lay ahead. On the other hand, the Councilmembers probably don’t want to be seen as breaking one more promise to activists after painfully walking back their commitment to defund SPD by 50%.

I hope you found this article valuable. If you did, please take a moment to make a contribution to support my ongoing work. Thanks!