City of Vallejo Participatory Budgeting Program
On April 17, 2012, the Vallejo City Council established the first city-wide Participatory Budgeting (PB) process in the United States. The community was invited to participate in the decision-making process and help decide how to spend 30% of the revenue generated by a voter-approved sales tax – approximately $3.2 million. PB enabled taxpayers to work alongside government to assist in the decision making process, while exposing taxpayers to a unique and innovative method of managing public budgets and more closely engaging people in their government. Vallejo’s PB process had three goals: 1) improve the City of Vallejo, 2) engage the community, and 3) transform democracy. The process had five phases: 1. Budget Assemblies Public meetings where residents generate project ideas that will have a public benefit, complemented by a website where residents could submit project ideas online. 2. Budget Delegates Residents volunteered to serve as budget delegates to screen project ideas for eligibility, prioritize ideas based on public benefit and needs, and develop ideas into detailed proposals for a public vote. 3. Project Expos Project Expos provided an opportunity for the community to learn about project proposals developed by budget delegates that would possibly appear on the ballot. 4. Voting The ballot listed 33 projects, and each resident over 16 years of age could vote for up to six unique projects. 5. Funding and Implementation The projects receiving the greatest number of votes totaling $3.28 million were approved by City Council.
Vallejo is a mid-sized California city with a population of approximately 117,000 residents, located at the north end of the San Francisco Bay region and situated on the waterfront of the Napa River and the Carquinez Strait. Vallejo is widely identified as the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States, with the four major demographic groups – Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians – each accounting for at least 22% of the total population.
Vallejo is also home to Mare Island, the nation’s oldest naval base west of the Mississippi until it was decommissioned in 1996. The closure of Mare Island in the mid-1990s was a severe blow to Vallejo’s economy, causing a spike in unemployment and falling home values. However, over the following decade Vallejo embarked on a slow recovery, with the unemployment rate reaching a low of 5.4% in October of 2006. However, the confluence of the 2008 Great Recession and escalating city financial commitments forced the City of Vallejo to declare Chapter 9 Bankruptcy in 2008.
In addition to the economic impacts caused by an unemployment rate in Vallejo that peaked at more than 15% during the 2008-2010 Recession, the city’s bankruptcy caused a drastic reduction in city services and programs, and subsequently the size of the workforce. Increases in property and violent crime followed significant cuts to local law enforcement. City departments cut back operating hours, staff and services. A decrease in city revenue resulted in reduced infrastructure maintenance, including a lack of upkeep and repair to the City’s roads and lighting.
Even as Vallejo emerged from bankruptcy in 2011, the city faced public apprehensions regarding transparency, accountability and community engagement. Traditionally disengaged members of the community were still heavily underrepresented at the decision-making table. The City Council and staff recognized that residents needed equal opportunity and empowerment in order to collaborate with its staff, departments and local government officials.
The City of Vallejo identified the lack of civic pride as a significant concern. Vallejo residents were no longer showing interest or solidarity in their “City of Opportunity.” Something needed to be done to bring in a new spirit of engagement and optimism that would allow residents and the City to work for a common cause.
In November 2011, on the heels of the City of Vallejo’s emergence from bankruptcy protection, the voters in Vallejo narrowly passed a 1% sales tax entitled “Measure B” to enable the City to restore and enhance public services. Recognizing that residents of Vallejo wanted to participate in determining how to spend the additional $11 million in city revenue, the Vallejo City Council engaged the community in a dialogue regarding the value of implementing the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process.
On April 17, 2012, the City Council established the first city-wide Participatory Budgeting (PB) process in the United States. Over a 7-month period, the community was invited to participate in the decision-making process and help decide how to spend 30% of the revenue generated by the Measure B sales tax – approximately $3.2 million – collected over a 15 month period.
PB enabled taxpayers to work with government to help make budget decisions, while exposing taxpayers to a unique and innovative method of managing public budgets and more closely engaging people in their government. PB offered an invaluable opportunity to empower residents, rebuild trust after the strain of the bankruptcy, and build productive partnerships between residents and city staff working towards a common goal of improving the City’s quality of life.
The PB Steering Committee, appointed by the City Council and composed of representatives from diverse local civic organizations, ensured the process would reflect the City’s diverse groups, needs, and interests. The Steering Committee, along with City staff and consultants, were instrumental in the development of a Rulebook, which governed the process and included the criteria for project eligibility. It also outlined three goals for Vallejo’s PB process: 1) improve the City of Vallejo, 2) engage the community, and 3) transform democracy.
There were five major steps in the PB process:
Budget Assemblies (November - December 2012) – Nine budget assemblies were held in locations throughout the City where residents converse in small groups to generate project ideas that will have a public benefit. In order to encourage representation among all of Vallejo’s residents, childcare was provided at several meetings, and one assembly was conducted entirely in Spanish. The in-person assemblies were complemented by a website where residents could submit project ideas online, accounting for 36% of all ideas collected.
Budget Delegates (January - March 2013) – Residents who volunteered to serve as budget delegates on one of eight committees were tasked with screening project ideas for eligibility, prioritizing ideas based on public benefit and needs, and developing those ideas into detailed proposals for a public vote. Six of the committees tackled project ideas that addressed related issues (public safety, education, etc.), and two demographic committees, composed of youth and Spanish-speakers, were formed to reduce language and age barriers, and increase participation.
Project Expos (April 2013) – Three Project Expos provided an opportunity for the community to learn about project proposals developed by budget delegates that would possibly appear on the ballot. Project proposals were displayed in a science fair format.
Voting (May 2013) – The ballot listed 33 projects, and each resident could vote for up to six unique projects. Voting took place over eight days in various locations, including supermarkets, places of worship, schools and City Hall. Any Vallejo resident age 16 and older could vote in the PB election.
Funding and Implementation (June 2013 - onward) – The projects receiving the greatest number of votes totaling $3.28 million were approved by City Council.
The City of Vallejo’s first cycle of PB engaged more than 5,000 residents and generated over 800 project ideas. More than 11 percent of residents attending assemblies were over 18 years of age but not registered to vote, suggesting that PB engaged residents typically not involved in civic affairs. African Americans, Hispanics, and residents younger than 35 years of age who participated in assemblies were less likely to have previously interacted with their government officials, suggesting that PB offered new avenues to people to interact with issues of local importance outside of traditional channels. Of the 518 people who attended budget assemblies, 92 percent spoke and shared project ideas.
A total of 3,917 residents ages 16 and over participated by casting a vote. The PB voting phase turned out 3.4 percent of the total population – a much higher percentage than previous PB processes in Chicago (1.3 percent) and New York (1.9 percent).
Youth voters (16-17 years of age) accounted for 18 percent of the total votes cast. In addition, the youth budget delegate committee provided a significant opportunity for youth to develop their skills and interest in civic affairs.
Significant outreach efforts were made toward demographic groups that typically do not participate in civic activities, with success demonstrated in bringing out youth, Vallejo’s four major ethnic groups, populations from a range of income levels, and foreign-born residents.
The 12 projects approved by the City Council provide funding and support for capital improvements, programs, and services. The projects ranged from increasing the City’s capacity to provide basic services and amenities, such as street repairs, street light installations, parks improvements, public safety cameras, city clean up and senior center upgrades, to creating new community capital through community gardens, small business grants, college scholarships, support for middle school enrichment programs, low and no cost spay and neuters, and renovating a community center.
As projects from the first cycle are implemented, it is clear that PB has created substantial value in terms of in-kind resources for the City. For example, the Parks & Recreation Improvements project has generated roughly $180,000 of in-kind contributions (29 percent of the initial project funding) from the Greater Vallejo Recreation District as part of the agreement to enhance 12 city parks.
PB has also created a new forum for productive exchange between citizens and government, delivering deep and substantive feedback about community needs and priorities not typically offered through other means. PB has also empowered residents, whether they have little civic background or are seasoned in governmental process, improving their civic knowledge, training them as facilitators and public speakers, and positioning them to assume leadership roles in the community. Throughout the process, PB helped to restore trust and services, advanced accountable and transparent partnerships, and positioned Vallejo as a setting of innovative government practice. As the second cycle progresses, it is evident that the process has gained momentum with the City Council and staff continuing to build trusting relationships with Vallejo’s residents.