At the end of the month, an elected official in Merced County, California, will lead her district in the first implementation of participatory budgeting at the county level—but unless her fellow supervisors can be persuaded to see the value of the process, it could very well be this county’s last, too.
Most participatory budgeting processes in the United States have taken place in larger cities like New York City, Chicago, San Jose, and Seattle, although they have also been run in smaller cities like Charlottesville, VA, and towns as small as Wickenburg, AZ (population 6,400). Merced County is in central California’s San Joaquin Valley, roughly equidistant from San Jose to the west and Sierra National Forest to the east. The county seat, Merced, has around 80,000 residents, but the rest of the county is mostly rural. The next largest city after Merced is Los Banos, with just over 35,000 residents. The county is divided into five districts, two of which are running participatory budgeting processes this year—whether they have the money to fund it or not.
Earlier this year, Supervisor Lee Lor and her colleague, Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, committed to spending the $40,000 in discretionary funds allotted annually to each of the five county supervisors on projects chosen by their constituents. They convened an 18-person steering committee with equal representation from both districts to help lead the participatory budgeting process, which has been implemented in dozens of cities around the world since its first iteration in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989. The process was set to begin this fall, but in early September the Merced County Board of Supervisors voted 3 – 2 to eliminate the discretionary funds in the 2017 – 2018 budget, disrupting the current process and throwing the future of participatory budgeting in Merced County into question.
In spite of this setback, the steering committee has decided to move forward with the process, which is set to begin in District 2 this month. Supervisor Lor tells Civicist that her district has enough rollover funds from previous years to fund two years worth of projects. Supervisor Espinoza’s district does not have rollover funds available, but the steering committee hopes to run the process there anyway, starting later this year or early next. Lor and Espinoza are trying to get the discretionary funds reinstated; if that fails, the tentative plan is to ask area nonprofits and businesses to help fund the projects that are chosen in Espinoza’s district.
Lor acknowledges that this is a risky move. If residents participate in a months-long process and then they cannot find the funding to support the winning projects, it’s possible participants will be disillusioned and discouraged from future civic engagement. Although certainly possible, Lor doesn’t think this scenario is very likely, and those area organizations will be happy to step up and help. “Chances are the projects that are identified will be ongoing problems,” she told Civicist. “Here in Merced County, more often than not, folks are always looking for problems to solve.”
The practice of giving the supervisors thousands in discretionary funds began in the 1990s, according to the Merced Sun-Star’s Thaddeus Miller. Supervisors originally received $100,000, although that figure had fallen over the years due to budget cuts. Those funds came under scrutiny during the most recent election campaign for functioning as a slush fund that supervisors could use to do favors for their friends. Even Lor and Espinoza, who were both challenging incumbents in their respective districts, have criticized how discretionary funds were used in the past. “[There were] no guidelines or criteria on what you should approve or support,” Lor told Civicist. “It was more about who you knew.”
Many of the candidates, both challengers, and incumbents, romised that they would do away with the practice.
They have proceeded to do just that, but only after the wheels for a participatory budgeting pilot were set in motion, which some, including Lor, believe is a superior solution to the problem of political favors: let the people decide.
County Supervisor McDaniel has defended his vote to do away with the funds as upholding a promise to his district. He had in previous terms tried and failed to get rid of discretionary funds. Some don’t see the timing of this decision as a coincidence.
“This would have been a solution to Mr. McDaniel’s complaint, but immediately once this [participatory budgeting] was happening, it happened to show up on an agenda item,” said Sol Rivas, who is providing administrative support for the participatory budgeting pilot as part of her work for Building Healthy Communities.
Building Healthy Communities approached Lor just as she was grappling with how she could best involve the local community in her decision-making and pitched the participatory budgeting process. Lor was thrilled; she doesn’t have any staff support, so without the help of Building Healthy Communities she might not have been able to run the process at all.
“I felt it wasn’t going to the population that needed help that most,” Lor said. “I wanted to open up that process and the decision-making because people in the communities know what their needs are.”
Residents who got involved in the participatory budgeting process as members of the steering committee wrote into the local paper to express their displeasure at the elimination of discretionary funds.
“Maybe the politicians didn’t want to share power,” Jerome Rasberry Jr. wrote. “Maybe they think they always know best. By getting rid of participatory budgeting, some supervisors think they got rid of a “slush” fund, but all they did is exclude people from the process of democracy.”
Another wrote in to call for the reinstatement of the funds.
“If Supervisors can vote to get rid of discretionary funds, they can vote to reinstate them,” Norma C. Cardona wrote. “I propose they not only reinstate discretionary funds but require the participatory budgeting process be the rule for use of all discretionary funds for all supervisorial districts. Call your supervisor to support an accountable, transparent and democratic process.”
Supervisor Lloyd Pareira declined to be interviewed about his stance on discretionary funds and participatory budgeting, and supervisors Espinoza, O’Banion, and McDaniel did not respond to requests for comment.
McDaniel expressed doubt shortly after Espinoza and Lor announced their intention to lead a participatory budgeting process. “I look at this cautiously because I don’t think it’s up to government to pick winners and losers,” he told the Merced Sun-Star. “The winners will be happy, and the losers will be unhappy. We can’t give money to everybody.”
Those familiar with the concept of participatory budgeting might read that and scratch their heads, since the entire purpose of the process is to take the decision-making out of the hands of government officials and transfer that power to constituents. Picking winners and losers is what government does the rest of the time. And, Lor says, the supervisors will still have to give a stamp of approval on the final projects.
“Yes, all projects, regardless of PB or no PB, must be approved by the full Board,” Lor told Civicist. “The approval rate of all projects in all districts is about 95+%. We are confident that with the community’s input, the Board will have no doubts with the projects proposed.”
Although this process will be the first participatory budgeting process at the county level, it’s worth pointing out that the district represented by Lor is a more urban district, encompassing most of the city of Merced. Lor conceded that the residents in her district might be more familiar and comfortable with civic processes than residents in more rural parts of the county.
“Any time PB is used in a new context, it’s a big win for democracy,” Francesco Tena, the West Coast Project Manager for the Participatory Budgeting Project, told Civicist. Tena is the liaison between Merced officials and the Participatory Budgeting Project. “Merced has shown us that county funds should be on the table for direct community control. The residents in Merced are dedicated to establishing a process that not only builds collaboration between residents and county government, but also fosters connections between neighbors. That’s exactly the attitude that makes PB (and democracy) work so well.”
Lor hopes that a successful participatory budgeting process in districts 1 and 2 will persuade her colleagues that it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and that they should reinstate the discretionary funds.
“I want to show them how engaged the residents are,” said Lor. “The criticism is always we have board meetings and nobody attends and nobody provides input. What is going to make PB different…is the environment. Folks are going to be more open and more valued in PB. People want to get involved because we’re meeting residents where they are, versus board meetings where they’re meeting us where we are.”
“I just want to show them that the community cares,” she added.