Merced residents got their first glimpse of the ‘Participatory Budgeting’ (PB) process proposed by Merced County District 1 Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza and District 2 Supervisor Lee Lor during a community meeting at the Merced County Office of Education.
Local residents and representatives from a variety of community organizations met with two leaders, as well as staff members from the groups Building Healthy Communities (BHC) and the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) last week. BHC and PBP are set to work with Espinoza and Lor on the first steps of a process to allow community members a vote on the allocation of $160,000 in county discretionary funding over a period of two years.
Each of the five leaders on the Merced County Board of Supervisors is allowed $40,000 a year in discretionary funding to support specific district concerns. Currently, organizations or individuals who wish to fund a project are asked to submit an application with their supervisor who will, in turn, decide if it should receive the full attention of the board for ultimate approval.
However, through the PB process lauded by Lor and Espinoza, local residents from their two districts would from a steering committee and members would set forth guidelines to ensure that an “inclusive process” is being used to meet local needs.
Once established and named, the committee would reach out to the community to ‘crowd source’ ideas for local improvements before developing them into finished proposals for all area residents to vote on.Those that receive the greatest amount of support are then taken by their respective district supervisor to the entire board for a vote.
Not surprisingly, there were questions from the audience. Some wanted to know if groups represented on the steering committee would be eligible to receive funds. Some wanted clarification on just who can vote on these improvement projects. And some were wondering what exactly was the end goal of this strategy.
Sheri Davis, the director of Strategic Initiatives for PBP, explained: “If someone is serving as a steering committee member, they then can not serve, and be a budget delegate,’ because that would then mean in theory they can potentially create their own proposal that would then appear on the ballot – and that cannot happen.”
For the proposals that do make it through a design process, the next step would be to place them on a ballot. Once the ballot is completed, a voting period will be set up by the steering committee and residents of all ages and statuses will be invited to vote on the proposals that will affect the communities in which they live.
Concerned District 2 resident Robert Tomasetti took issue with the idea of anyone being able to vote on expenditures of taxpayer funds, saying that, “To use the people that aren’t being talked to, and can’t vote in [general elections], well the federal and state governments have a reason why they do that… I voted for you so that you can best represent me. I know there’s money sitting over here, and they’re spending it as they want, and now they’re going to make us make the decisions for us, and I don’t understand why.”
In an interview with the Times, Supervisor Lor explained: “They’re residents of the community, and they’ll benefit from the programs that are provided so I think it is OK to vote on these programs because it impacts their quality of life as well. I realize that they may be undocumented as well, but it is a small amount of money, and if everyone benefits, I think the overall community will be a better place. We’re all so connected beyond the immigration status.”
Supervisor Espinoza elaborated: “While they may not by able to vote, they still pay taxes and live in the community, and at least they can then vote on how those tax dollars that they contribute to are spent.”
Casey Steed – a local radio talk show host, and former supervisor candidate questioned the final goals of the project while speaking with Lor during the meeting. “So it seems to me that you want to change the process for two districts, but the other three districts are still going to have a form that people submit, “he told her. “But your goal is to try and change the whole thought process.” Steed continued, “And you will eventually want to take this [PBP] to the discretionary fund money that is in the General Fund budget…”
Supervisor Lor agreed, saying: “That’s my goal.” Steed then questioned the process of pushing the decisions back to the citizens of Merced County, saying “Because really the word ‘discretionary,’ is why we have elected you in a representative form of government. You are our representatives. We make suggestions to you, and you sift the wheat from the chaff, and decide.”
Both Espinoza and Lor explained that they were approached by BHC representatives in regards to the PB process and whether they would be interested in implementing it. Supervisor Lor also explained her interest in the project stemmed from conversations she had while on the campaign trail. “I had folks say, “it’s a political slush fund and you need to get rid of it,’ and I had others say: ‘You know it’s a great tool for the community because the supervisors get to focus on projects.”…For me, coming from education and work with non-profits, I see the value in support to local non-profits. Helping the community weighed more than getting rid of it because at the end of the day Board of Supervisors, regardless of funds being in the general fund or in the district projects fund, have a say and will vote on how to spend the money regardless of which pot it is in.”
If the board is going to keep the discretionary fund, she pointed out, then she wanted to apply an open grant process to it. “The community is probably the best way to eliminate any perception of alleged political play, and is the fairest way to implement this that folk would be familiar with,” she said.
Said Espinoza, “It’s a new way of engaging the residents and a new way of giving the money back.” Espinoza, who on the campaign trail said he would favor using his discretionary funding to support county law enforcement, said the funds should “depend on what the community wants.”
The PBP application can be filled out online at tinyurl.com/PBMerced or can be submitted via mail to Supervisor Espinoza for District 1 or Supervisor Lor for District 2 at Boards of Supervisors, 2222 M Street Merced, CA 95340. The application is restricted to residents of Districts 1 or 2, or community agencies, non-profits, or public agencies serving District 1 or 2. The deadline to submit applications is June 16.