A sign in District 9 notifies residents of the participatory budget initiative. Credit: Wendy Lane Cook / San Antonio Report

Councilman John Courage (D9) has set aside $1.25 million of his district’s budget so residents can choose which community and bond projects should be funded through a pilot “participatory budgeting” initiative.

In the participatory budgeting model, citizens have a direct say in public spending.

Residents of the North Side district will “vote” on 19 transportation, public safety, and community-based projects by ranking them according to priority. Projects include water bottle refilling stations, speed bumps, sidewalks, crosswalks, and lighting, among others.

“I really believe in the citizen having more of a direct opportunity to be involved in the decision making that goes into their neighborhoods,” Courage told the Rivard Report Wednesday. “Let the community decide and prioritize.”

The online poll at D9PB.org will open for 12 days from 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 29, to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 9. Unofficial results will likely be published quickly, but staff will work to verify the results the following week, said Zack Lyke, communications director for District 9. Residents must be at least 13 years old to participate.

District 9 residents may also call Courage’s office at 210-207-7325 if they’d rather submit a paper ballot.

The City allocates roughly equal amounts of money to each council district; Council members may spend those funds at their discretion as long as it is on the type of project for which those different funds are designated.

To create the budget initiative, Courage pulled $25,000 from the district’s City Council Project Fund, $225,000 from its Neighborhood Accessibility and Mobility Program, and $1 million for pedestrian mobility projects from its allocation from the 2017 bond package.

More than 20 residents formed three different committees to oversee project suggestions for each funding source. Residents submitted 44 ideas online over the last six months, City staff vetted them for viability, and the committees narrowed the list down to a final ballot, Courage said.

More typically, Council members allocate funds after various meetings with concerned citizens, homeowner and neighborhood associations, staff, and community leaders, he said, but this pilot process allows “people in the community to look around their own neighborhood and talk with their neighbors [about priorities] to find out what’s important to them.”

This initiative will be one of the largest participatory budgeting exercise in the southern United States, Lyke said, citing information listed on the Participatory Budgeting Project website. The nonprofit works with governments and organizations in the U.S. and Canada to set up participatory budgeting systems, but is not associated with Courage’s initiative. More than 300 cities use a full participatory budgeting model, which originated in Brazil, and thousands more worldwide use it for a portion of their budgets.

Courage said he was inspired to look into participatory budgeting after attending an informational event hosted by local group Participatory Budgeting San Antonio last year.

There he learned that Palo Alto College experimented with $25,000 annually for a campus initiative. Then-Councilman Ron Nirenberg had a $10,000 limited pilot program in District 8, too.

Nirenberg could not be reached for comment before publication.

The local group produced a report outlining how District 9 could design the initiative, but Courage’s staff took on implementation.

Lyke, whose background is in web design, built the website and based the voting system on a format similar to that of Survey Monkey, a popular online survey tool. He also looked into participatory budget programs in Greensboro, North Carolina; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Chicago.

The City of Durham, North Carolina, on Monday approved a controversial $2.4 million participatory budget program, according to Indy Week.

“It’s all about getting people to civically engage through a different process,” Lyke said.

There are no local rules for participatory budgeting, he said, so technically, the results are the community’s “recommendations” to Courage.

District 9 resident Laura Rogers said she enjoyed serving on the Neighborhood Projects committee and seeing the suggestions the community produced.

The committee selected projects based on simple criteria, she said, such as which ones have “the most bang for our buck” or are “going to be of help to the community.”

The more projects get completed through this program, the more visibility and “buy in” residents will have, she said. “If they feel it’s their idea or they are helping their neighbors, it’s a good idea.”

Courage acknowledged that informal online surveys aren’t the most accessible way to collect community feedback, but emphasized that the initiative has cost his district less than $500 – not including his staff’s time. If the City were to fund a more robust outreach program, he said, it could reach even more residents.

“The more actively involved the community is in the decision-making process, the better they’re going to feel about it, the more they’re going to own it,” he said.

Allen Olson-Urtecho, founder of the Participatory Budgeting San Antonio group, said he hopes other Council members will follow Courage’s lead.

“You can manage governance through a much more organized fashion through participatory budgeting,” Olson-Urtecho said. “Governing shouldn’t be just people yelling at you, [and elected officials scrambling] to put out little fires everywhere.”

By holding meetings and engaging the community, people also become more connected to their neighbors and their concerns – which may or may not be the same, he added.

“People of San Antonio have a love of community – [the city has] a very small-town feel to it that they’ve nurtured over a long time,” he said. “[Participatory budgeting] creates a small mechanism that allows [citizens] to get together, work together, and vote together.”

Community and infrastructure projects are much easier to agree on than politicians, he said. Progressives, conservatives, and anarchists, he added, “we all want a playground.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org