A new activist group, the People’s Budget Athens, is demanding “drastic” changes to the Athens-Clarke County budget to allow some items to be decided through direct democracy.
Imani Scott-Blackwell, founder of People’s Budget Athens, made a case for defunding the ACC police and reinvesting the money in other community priorities during a drive-in “People’s Assembly” on Nov. 20. In support of this idea, she referenced a survey collected by her group in which 84% of people picked policing as a top priority for divestment. This survey had over 1,300 responses, although it was not a scientific sample of residents.
At their assembly, People’s Budget Athens members examined the ACC budget and discussed ways they’d like to see it changed. For example, in addition to divesting from policing, they’d like to create “participatory budgeting” mechanisms within the local government. Participatory budgeting is a process integrated into the regular county budget cycle that allows average citizens to decide how a certain portion of their tax dollars are spent.
Some cities in the Southeast have already experimented with participatory budgeting. For example, Durham, NC allocated $2.4 million to the program in 2018; each of the city’s three wards was given $800,000 to spend as constituents decided.
A representative from Durham gave a presentation on participatory budgeting to the ACC Mayor and Commission at their retreat on Sept. 10. It was received favorably by commissioners, according to Commissioner Jesse Houle, who was in attendance.
Houle campaigned on participatory budgeting during the last election and has advocated it for years. “I’m really excited that there’s so much energy around looking at the budget,” they told the Athens Politics Nerd website. Other commissioners, including Tim Denson and Mariah Parker, have also spoken in favor of the idea in the past.
While the commission is exploring various options for how to implement participatory budgeting, it appears unlikely that such a program will be ready in time to make an impact for next year. That is, in part, because of the tight timeline for budget discussions, which have already begun within the local government, but also because of the complexities inherent in democracy itself. “The logistics of making participatory budgeting work are actually pretty complicated,” Houle said. “You don’t want to have it be just whoever shows up one time. The participatory element takes a lot of time and energy. Right now, what I’m pushing for is to help get more public understanding of our existing budgeting process.”
Under the current process, the commission develops strategic goals while departments formulate their budget requests in late fall. In the spring, the county manager meets with department heads and outside agencies that receive government funding, then works with the mayor on a recommended budget released in April. The commission then takes public input and tweaks the budget before approving it in June.
A participatory budgeting program could be part of the next SPLOST or TSPLOST, part of the county’s yearly budgeting process or both. Houle said there could be legal issues with having a participatory element in SPLOST, but all options are currently on the table and being explored.
Houle was careful to clarify that a participatory budgeting process like Durham’s, by itself, would not mean that the money would be taken from policing, for example, or from anything else the people might decide. Citizens wouldn’t have the option to reduce funding in any area; they would only get to choose how to spend a certain amount of money.
While the commission slowly develops a plan to allow a bit more democracy within the ACC government, Scott-Blackwell said she will continue building power from the bottom up through people’s assemblies, with her sights set on a more fundamental transformation. If you’re interested in helping, follow them at facebook.com/peoplesbudgetathens.
This story originally appeared at Athens Politics Nerd.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.