Appalachian Transition movement should employ participatory budgeting


Massachusetts youth at a jobs rally earlier this year. (AP Photo by Stephan Savoia)

City governments across the country (and world) are trying a new system of budgeting that seems to be working well for them and their citizens. Participatory budgeting is a process of decision-making in which non-elected community members decide how a portion of their local government budget will be used. The process typically involves at least four steps:

1)   Community members self-identify priorities on which they think city money should be spent.

2)   Community members select which projects they want to support, and then decide which members of these subgroups will be budget delegates. These delegates work with budget experts to create specific spending proposals.

3)   Community members vote on which projects to fund.

4)   The city government implements spending for the top projects.

This system of budgeting has been around for at least 25 years, when in 1989 the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, implemented the first full participatory budgeting process. Since then, it has spread into the U.S., mostly to large or medium-sized cities (Chicago, New York City, Vallejo, Calif., to list a few).

So, why shouldn’t/couldn’t it spread into eastern Kentucky or any other part of Central Appalachia?

In Kentucky, each county has a fiscal court and a municipal city council that have annual budgets that elected officials are in charge of dispersing for various projects. Most of the time, this system works just fine, and projects that need attention, like extending city water lines into communities far from the county seat, get the money needed to complete them.

Trouble is, sometimes this system isn’t the best, especially in eastern Kentucky where cronyism, nepotism and plutocracy have ruled the power structure for generations. Corrupt officials have sometimes led to government budgets being abused – from state money being used to pay personal friends to chauffeur a dog, to county clerks using taxpayer money for campaign merchandise.

There exists in eastern Kentucky a keen lack of interest in political matters, especially how a budget is dispersed, and it’s not just because eastern Kentuckians are uninterested in what happens to that money. The sense is that whether everyday community members care about local budgets or not, there’s little they can do to avert the current systems by which the budget is dolled out, whether a local government is corrupt or not.

Which is what makes the idea of participatory budgeting in the region so intriguing. A Boise State University study of eight cities in Brazil that implemented participatory budgeting found participatory budgeting often results in more equitable public spending, greater government transparency and accountability, and increased levels of public participation – especially by marginalized or poorer residents.

What if everyday community members in Harlan, Whitesburg, West Liberty, Hazard, Inez, or any other eastern Kentucky town, were allowed to control how $100,000, $200,000, $500,000 or even $1 million of the municipal budget was spent? What if community members from a tri-county area – like Pike, Floyd and Martin, or Knott, Breathitt and Perry – were told they could decide how a set total of money from three county governments could be spent on transition-related initiatives to benefit those counties as a whole?

Better yet, what if the youth in those communities and the counties in which they lie were given control over how a piece of the budget was spent? That’s what happened in Boston this year when the city allowed young people from age 12 to 25 to decide how $1 million of the city’s budget should be spent. They decided the money would be best used for playground and park upgrades, citywide art projects, sidewalk renovations, and for the purchase of laptops for three high school classrooms.

Participatory budgeting could have vast applications in the Appalachian Transition movement. Imagine if the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative had been structured to allow participatory budgeting. SOAR is similar in that it allows the public to share ideas about which economic projects should be funded, but falls short of allowing them the ultimate decision about which ones will actually receive funding.

Transitioning the economy in Appalachia is, after all, an effort that will impact, benefit or (God forbid) hinder the people of eastern Kentucky. Shouldn’t they ultimately be allowed some power in deciding their own fate?