Heart and Soul seeks participatory budgeting money

ECOS grant would support direct democracy experiment

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter

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A Chittenden County visioning effort is granting $280,000 in increments of $10,000 to $50,000 to local municipalities, non-profits and businesses, and Essex’s Heart and Soul committee has applied for $20,000 to jumpstart an experiment in participatory town budgeting.

Heart and Soul launched in September to facilitate a community dialogue among Essex Town and Essex Junction residents about the future of their hometowns. As a supplement to its core work, the committee hopes a Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission ECOS project grant (see related story, Page 1) will introduce the concept of participatory budgeting in Essex.

Participatory budgeting is a direct-democracy process that began in Brazil and is beginning to gain traction in some North American localities, gathering groups of community members to negotiate how taxpayer funds are spent.

“If you’re doing it in a very pure way, you’re taking a piece of the municipal budget and letting citizens decide how to spend it,” explained Susan McCormack, co-project coordinator for the Essex Heart and Soul project.

If the ECOS grant is awarded, it will provide funds outside of the Essex Town and Village of Essex Junction budgets for citizens to try out the process in a low-stakes way.

“It would be interesting to see how it works here,” McCormack said.

Participatory budgeting can be accomplished through community forums where citizens discuss directly with each other projects worthy of taxpayer funds, ultimately voting on what to support. In cities like Chicago and New York City, it has been used to increase civic engagement among people who have not previously involved themselves in local democracy. It requires a leap of faith from elected municipal officials to turn over a piece of the municipal budget directly to the public.

There are several different ways to set up a participatory budgeting process, McCormack said, and the Heart and Soul committee would customize one to fit Essex if the ECOS grant is awarded.

An ECOS sub-committee is currently reviewing the 55 grant applications received and will make a recommendation at the Oct. 24 meeting of the ECOS steering committee which projects to fund. About a dozen projects are expected to be chosen, Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission Senior Planner Regina Mahony said. The 55 applications “were certainly at the higher end of what we were expecting,” she said.

Other Essex organizations that have applied for ECOS grant money are the Essex Junction Wastewater Treatment Facility, IBM, and the Village of Essex Junction WiFi Committee.