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Saturday, December 20, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 29.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Building from the grassroots with participatory budgeting

What if the Allied Drive neighbors had their own budget to work with? They could decide if investments should be made in street repair or traffic calming, better lighting or better bus shelters. They could prioritize and invest in all of those things and more over a few years.

That's the idea behind "participatory budgeting," a concept I learned about at the Citistates conference in New Hampshire. The concept was explained to me by Marc Weiss, the president of an organization named Global Urban Development. Marc came across it in Rio de Janeiro where he has been working.

Here's the way it works. Neighborhoods in Rio get to decide on a share of the city's capital budget, which is public money to be used for infrastructure investments like streets and sidewalks, parks and public buildings. The neighborhood elects representatives to a committee that spends a year or so researching needs and talking with residents. At the end of the process, the committee produces a budget and the city honors its choices.

Marc tells me that he was skeptical at first, but after watching it work in practice he sees it as a big success. He says that it brings attention to neighborhood needs that would otherwise be ignored by the larger city and starts to build a civic infrastructure in neighborhoods that might have lacked them. These neighborhoods might have felt that they couldn't fight city hall. Now, in a sense, they are city hall. The Participatory Budgeting Project, based in New York, is working to develop processes for doing this in communities around the county

This would be a good concept to bring to Madison. The traditional public hearings and some of the more innovative things that we've tried over the years like "build your own budget" have had limited success in getting people involved. But when citizens understand that they will be making real decisions with real dollars it changes the game entirely.

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