Skip to content

Participatory Budgeting Process in Grand Rapids in now open, with limitations

February 14, 2022

Last week, the City of Grand Rapids announced that people could make submissions for the Participatory budgeting Pilot Project.

Participatory Budgeting began in Brazil in the 1990s, as a radical democracy initiative by the leftist Worker’s Party. The whole point of Participatory Budgeting is to shift from representative democracy to more direct democracy, where people get to decide how they want their tax money spent. In addition, Participatory Budgeting increases involvement in politics by civil society, creates more transparency, more accountability and it leads to more possibilities for social transformation.

People have been talking about and discussing the need tor Participatory Budgeting in Grand Rapids for several years now. We wrote about it in 2020, in response to news that public money would be used to benefit private interests.

The group Defund the GRPD, then demanded Participatory Budgeting in the Spring of 2021, while challenging the annual Grand Rapids City Budgeting process.

In June of 2021, the City of Grand Rapids then announced that they would be using federal funds that were allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act. GRIID has been critical of the project from the beginning, which is to say that we are not against Participatory Budgeting, only that we have been challenging how the project is being implemented here in Grand Rapids. 

We raised for main points in our initial posting in June of 2021, suggesting that is was too managed and too limiting in how people could participate. Then in November of last year, we addressed some concerns about the process again, centered around which City residents would likely participate.

Yesterday, I submitted a project idea for the 2nd Ward, which is where I reside in Grand Rapids. The process was fairly easy to navigate, but I still have objections to the pre-determined parameters of the project. The categories you can submit proposals under are the following:

  • Infrastructure investments related to water, wastewater and broadband
  • Evidence-based violence reduction strategies
  • Remediation of lead paint or other lead hazards in homes
  • Economic and health impacts of COVID-19 (includes assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits)
  • Incentive pay to front-line workers
  • Investments in housing and re-housing
  • Addressing educational disparities
  • Investing in healthy childhood environments

Now, I am not objecting to any of these categories, but why limit the scope of what this Participatory Budgeting could look like? A second objection I have to this process is that it doesn’t define certain aspects of the categories that are pre-determined. For instance, evidence-based violence reduction strategies isn’t clearly define, particularly around the definition of violence. Does their definition of violence have to do with overt violence, like gun violence, or are they open to considering proposals that take on structural violence, like the violence of poverty or racism? 

Another major issue I have with this project is the sustainability of future Participatory Budgeting. Where will the funding come from the future? The City of Grand Rapids can’t rely on federal funding in the future, so where will the funding come from. One way to secure ongoing funding for Participatory Budgeting would be for the City to adopt the framework that the Movement for Black Lives has been promoting for the past 7 years, a Divest/Invest strategy. This Divest/Invest strategy was laid out in their vision document in 2015, as a response to the larger structural issues connected to the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Divest/Invest strategy of the Movement for Black Lives states:

We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations. 

The Divest/Invest strategy then lays out 7 ways to implement such a strategy, located on pages 10-11 in the document. Such a strategy is what has been driving the national call for defunding of police departments. In the Movement for Black Lives Defund the Police toolkit they state:

When we say #DefundPolice, we mean reducing the size, budgets, and power of all institutions that surveil, police, punish, incarcerate and kill Black people to zero, and investing in and building entirely new community infrastructures that will produce genuine safety and sustainability for our communities.

If Grand Rapids decides to defund the GRPD, then there will be plenty of money to not only continue the Participatory Budget process, but a radical relocation of funds will result in there not only being greater equity in the city, but eliminate the need for policing at all. The GRPD practice policing, like all police departments, disproportionately in neighborhoods of color and neighborhoods experiencing poverty, as a form of population management. In addition, the GRPD does not question or work to eliminate structural violence, which does more long-term harm than the overt forms of violence in this city. The GRPD does not arrest landlords who exploit tenants and they do not arrest businesses that exploit their workers or pollute the environment.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the beginnings of the Participatory Budget Movement that was born in Brazil, also did not just make decisions on a very small percentage of a municipal budget, they made collective decisions on the entire budget. Grand Rapids could do the same, which would not only get more people involved in the process, it would lead towards a movement from representative democracy, to participatory democracy, or as the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois said, such a process would lead to Abolition Democracy.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: