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Grand Rapids City Budget: Omissions, lack of vision and the possibility of Participatory Budgeting

May 30, 2018

On Sunday, May 27, MLive ran an article headlined, 10 things to know about Grand Rapids’ $587M budget

The 10 things that MLive wants us to know about the 2018 City Budget are:

  • Property taxes will stay the same
  • Income tax revenue will increase
  • $1M for police-community relations
  • $20 million in LED streetlights
  • River restoration
  • Two fire stations will be replaced
  • Trees
  • Staffing up communications office
  •  Seed money for affordable housing fund
  • 32 percent of budget in savings

As with all media, these 10 things we should not are crafted and are not necessarily the most relevant things about the 2018 City Budget. There are definitely some things that are omitted from the MLive story and it is also worth noting that there are things about the article that are problematic, in that the article provides no strong context, nor is there any analysis of these 10 points or the city budget as a whole.

One point about these 10 things that MLive thinks we should know, is not they they are completely irrelevant, but that these items are presented primarily based on numbers, on costs. For example, point number three, tells us that the city is going to spend $1 million on police/community relations, yet they fail to mention that a full third of the entire budget is dedicated to the GRPD. One third of the entire budget is roughly $195 million.

A second observation is that in point 8, MLive tells us that the city is planning on adding more communication’s staff, based on recommendations from an audit done by Truscott Rossman. Truscott Rossman is a PR firm that was founded by John Truscott, the former spokesperson for Michigan Governor John Engler. Truscott Rossman has primarily worked with corporate clients, but also has a history with the City of Grand Rapids. 

A third point worth making is about point number 9, the affordable housing fund. While setting aside money for such efforts, there is no real discussion about how the amount of funds the city will set aside is grossly inadequate, but there is also no information about how it will be administered and who gets to decide about affordable housing. Will construction companies and non-profit housing agencies get to decide or will those struggling to find affordable housing have a say it how these funds will be used? All indications so far, suggests that those who have made up the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force will get to decide, which doesn’t include a single person who is struggling to find affordable housing.

A fourth point has to do with point number 10, which says the City will be operating in the black, with funds in a savings account. Here it is important to point out that revenue sharing is left out of the MLive article all together. Like all municipalities, Grand Rapids has lost a ton of money that they used to get through revenue sharing from the state. One of the main projects that the Snyder administration took on soon after it began in 2011, was to impose neo-liberal economic policies on municipalities, specifically austerity measures. These austerity measures were to push the privatization of former public services and to eliminate public sector employee benefits and pensions. 

The fact that the city is experiencing a savings is not so much about good fiscal management, but about embracing neo-liberal capitalist principles of attacking public sector unions and adopting privatization.

The last point about the MLive article is that it mentions near the beginning that people will have a chance to comment on the budget during the June 5th City Commission meeting. While this may seem like the city is really seeking public input, this is really a weak and lazy approach to public participation into determining the budget.

What the City of Grand Rapids needs to do, is to provide a mechanism for the public to democratically decide on how budget funds should be spent. In fact, there is an international movement called Participatory Budgeting, which provides an important model on how people who live in communities get to decide on budget priorities. IN many cases, those who participate in this process will be involved in making decisions in a process that takes a year and then continues for 12 months every year to ensure that there is real transparency and real democracy for anyone who wants to take part in the process. 

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