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Instead of giving public money to benefit the business class in Grand Rapids, how about we adopt the process of Participatory Budgeting

November 22, 2020

During the November 10th City Commission’s Committee of the Whole meeting, city officials agreed to use more public money to assist the retail industry, particularly those in downtown Grand Rapids.

What was decide on at the November 10th meeting, was that the City of Grand Rapids would provide $50,000 to go towards the salary of a Retail Specialist. You read that correctly, the City of Grand Rapids is contributing $50,000 towards the salary of someone who will be working with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. 

In addition, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), will also be contributing $50,000 towards the Retail Specialist’s salary and the GR Chamber of Commerce will offer in kind services. Now, the DDA will also be using tax money that is collected by downtown businesses for this project. However, it must be noted that the DDA board members are not elected, they are appointed, with the public completely excluded from their decision making process, even though the DDA also uses public tax dollars. Here is a list of who sits on the DDA Board of Directors and who they represent:

Richard Winn (Amway Hotel Corporation), Jermale Eddie (Malamiah Juice Bar), Jen Schottke (ABC Western Michigan), Rosalynn Bliss (Mayor, Grand Rapids), Greg McNeilly (Windquest Group), Luis Avila (Varnum Law), Jim Talen (Kent County Commissioner), Kayem Dunn ( Consultant), and Diana Sieger (Grand Rapids Community Foundation). 

This Retail Specialist that the City just approved funding for was actually created in October of 2019, when the City approved $100,000 to work in conjunction with the GR Chamber of Commerce. Thus, the City of Grand Rapids has contribute $150,000 over the past 12 months for a salary position that the public is excluded from, all for the benefit of retail businesses. If you include the $50,000 from the DDA, which is tax money, then we are looking at $200,000.

Of course, this who thing of the City using public money to bolster and improve the private business sector is not new. In recent years we have documented the following instances of public money that benefits the business class, with a few examples here:

  • The City of Grand Rapids literally has provided tens of millions in tax breaks to private developers in the last decade, specifically for developers who are building in or near downtown Grand Rapids. 

Now, called me old fashioned, but I thought that capitalists believed in no government interference, since the “market” would decide who can survive and who can’t. The reality is that there are lots of businesses that rely on tax breaks, public funding and public bailouts in order to survive, yet they get bailed out with public money all of the time.

Participatory Budgeting

The City of Grand Rapids also doesn’t do enough to inform the public that they are voting on giving money for retail specialists or any other forms of business subsidies. This is why we need to adopt a practice of participatory budgeting in Grand Rapids, whereby the public would have months to discuss and have input on how they want to see public tax money used in their community. 

Imagine what a City budget would look like if the people really had a say in it. Imagine if people actually had a say in how much money can go to the GRPD. Imagine what residents would do if they had to decide on further subsidies and tax breaks to developers or to give money directly to residents to support their housing costs. Imagine what it might look like if the public had a direct say in how tax money was used and how that money could be applied for real needs in neighborhoods, for community-based projects an to support the most vulnerable in our city. 

The great thing about participatory budgeting, which I have witnessed being practiced in Guatemala, is that it often leads to people demanding the democratization of more and more of society. If Grand Rapids residents were to demand Participatory Budgeting, it would be one important step towards democratizing  the local economy and truly creating equity, which the City of Grand Rapids often claims to care about.


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