Participatory budgeting in Philadelphia not likely

    Picture a crazy world in which residents control Philadelphia’s purse strings.

    Would city employees be able to keep their taxpayer-funded cars? Would City Council members continue to get automatic raises? Would elected officials ever have been able to retire for a day just to collect six-figure DROP payments?

    Giving budget power to citizens may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s happened in more than 1,000 cities and states around the world, according to the nonprofit organization Participatory Budgeting Project. Chicagoans tried their hands at the first step of the process known as “participatory budgeting” earlier this year, as reported by NPR. They laid out ideas for spending taxpayer money.

    In Chicago, residents decide how to spend $1.3 million for capital improvements. In New York City, Council members decided this summer to double-down on their participatory budgeting program. Now citizens will control at least $10 million.

    Will Philadelphia residents ever decide how millions of their dollars are spent?

    It’s possible, but not probable.

    Councilman Bill Green says he would like to see participatory budgeting in Philadelphia, but now isn’t a good time.

    “Most district Council discretionary money is being used for things that are actually not discretionary — for example, roofs or fixing a bathroom in a rec center or other things very important to the community,” he said. “You would have to be adding dollars to a budget to allow neighborhoods to choose priorities, and we’re not in a position to add dollars to budgets after five years of tax increases.”

    Council President Darrell Clarke’s office did not respond to requests for comment, and a mayoral spokeswoman says she can’t comment because the city hasn’t looked into participatory budgeting.

    As executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, Josh Lerner has helped bring the alternative process to Chicago and New York City. He says that local governments don’t have to raise extra money to start the process of participatory budgeting; they just have to change the way they decide how to spend it.

    “You just engage a lot more people in deciding how existing money is spent,” he said.

    When that happens, Lerner says, taxpayer money is usually spent more fairly. He points to Porto Alegre, Brazil, which began using participatory budgeting in 1989.

    “Public transportation was expanded to poorer neighborhoods. The number of schools doubled. Streets and shanty towns, the favelas in Brazil, became paved and electricity was installed at a much higher rate,” Lerner said. “So it was probably the biggest urban turnaround that we’ve seen in the developing world in the past century, arguably.”

    Even without participatory budgeting, Green says that Council members routinely reach out to citizens for input.

    A few Council members say they are open to learning more about the approach.

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