Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin is not going to concede to participatory budgeting without a fight.
That was the clear message of a statement released by City Council late Wednesday. The statement confirmed that People’s Budget Cleveland (PB CLE) had secured enough petition signatures to get a charter amendment on the ballot in November. But it also attacked the very concept of letting citizens propose and vote on ways to spend up to 2% of the city’s annual budget.
“The $14 million that would be reallocated could lead to massive layoffs and have a devastating impact on the city,” the statement claimed. It went on to cite examples, including “prevent[ing] hiring roughly 140 police officers at a time when our Division of Police is dramatically short-staffed”; and eliminating or drastically downsizing various city departments.
Griffin added this: “Council welcomes the opportunity for residents to offer constructive feedback to building a better Cleveland. However, I believe the proposal presented will have devastating impacts on public safety and services in our city. Council will work tirelessly in the coming months to communicate how this initiative, if approved, will negatively impact Clevelanders.”
PB CLE proposes adding a new chapter to Cleveland’s charter that creates a process for residents to make more direct spending decisions. A portion equal to 2% of the city’s General Fund would be set aside each year, and residents would vote on how to spend it. The process would be overseen by a steering committee of city residents chosen by Mayor Justin Bibb and City Council.
In its own statement, PB CLE cited the success of its petition drive — 6,400 signatures in 45 days — and called it “a sure sign that a People’s Budget resonates with residents across the city. Over the next four months, PB CLE stands ready to make the case for a People’s Budget to many more residents.”
Molly Martin, a PB CLE organizer, accused Griffin of using “scare tactics to dissuade residents from having real power to make real decisions about how public money gets spent. Where was this list of scare tactics when billionaires and wealthy real estate developers got millions in public dollars for stadiums and luxury condos?”
“It’s extremely drastic to use those sort of equivalent cuts,” Martin added, “when there is discretionary funding that council has, it’s just a matter about who has the power to make those decisions.”
The participatory budget coalition has existed since early 2021 and has met with nearly every member of City Council, Martin said. And they’re willing to meet again.
“But I think it’s important to note that we went to the ballot because we’ve been trying to work with council for two years,” she added.
“A lot of people [who signed the petition] were like, ‘Why only 2%?’” she added. “And I was surprised by how many people thought that something like PB should already exist.”
Mayor now opposes the initiative
Thursday afternoon, Mayor Bibb’s office released the following statement:
I supported creating a participatory budgeting pilot program here in Cleveland, to help direct a portion of our one-time federal stimulus. My Administration brought legislation for the pilot before City Council, which rejected the proposal. I continue to support resident involvement in the civic process and have demonstrated that with several city projects.
This ballot issue is a permanent charter amendment rather than a pilot program. And instead of using federal funds, it will force critical cuts to other parts of the city’s budget. This is very different from the initiative I proposed.
I do not support this initiative because I truly do not believe it is in the best financial interest of Clevelanders but it’s ultimately up to the residents of the City of Cleveland to decide.
What is the People’s Budget amendment?
You can read the entire amendment (six pages) here. These are some highlights:
The amendment would establish the People’s Budget Fund, to be provided by the city on the following schedule:
• First year: $350,000 for “initial administrative costs”
• Second year: An amount equal to 1% of the City’s General Fund
• Third year: 1.5% of the General Fund
• Fourth and each following year: 2% of the General Fund
The General Fund pays for most city services, like police and fire, rec centers and trash pick up. Martin said that half of the 2% could come from the city’s capital budget, which is for investment in infrastructure.
Administrative costs rise to $500,000 in the second year, and by 2% of that amount each year thereafter. This fund covers the salaries of two full-time people (one in the mayor’s office) who will support the People’s Budget Fund steering committee; a $5,000 annual stipend for committee members; and costs associated with engaging citizens, maintaining a web site, and elections on spending proposals
If the amendment passes, the mayor’s office will organize a process through which city residents, age 16 and up, can apply to a position on the 11-member steering committee. From those applicants, the mayor and City Council will choose five each. Both are expected to “appoint residents who represent the diversity of Cleveland regarding age, gender, race, geography, LGBTQ+ status, and socioeconomic status,” and to prioritize people under 30 and members of historically marginalized communities.
The mayor’s office staffer dedicated to the fund will also be a member.
The committee will meet in public at least monthly to oversee the People’s Budget Fund and develop the system for residents to propose and vote on plans to spend the money. The committee also will determine how to allocate funds equitably by neighborhood.
All city residents age 13 and up will be eligible to propose and vote on plans to spend portions of the fund. Proposals can be for new or existing programs or for capital projects such as improvements to public spaces.
Citywide and neighborhood-specific proposals are both eligible for consideration. In the latter case, only residents of the relevant neighborhood would vote on it.
For more information on the PB CLE charter amendment, read this FAQ.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 2 p.m. to include new information and the mayor’s statement.