The City of Ithaca on Wednesday funded a pilot program in which voters will be able to decide, without the city’s approval, how to spend $10,000 of the city’s money, a radical project initiated and developed by local teenagers.
Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 allocated $10,000 for the experimental program, known as participatory budgeting, in the city’s $72.2 million budget, which Common Council approved after weeks of debate. The pilot program will take place in the Second Ward, which encompasses downtown Ithaca.
The Multicultural Resource Center’s youth fellows, who have been working on the proposal for more than a year, say the program will give citizens a more direct and active role in deciding how at least a portion of their tax dollars are spent by local government.
Five high school students are currently part of the Youth Organizing Fellowship, and the fellows have been working on the concept of participatory budgeting, which they branded as The People’s Budget, since the spring of 2016, when there were a dozen fellows.
Under the pilot program, voters could propose adding a speed bump on a busy road, fixing a swing set, funding community organizations and more.
The voting requirements are loose by design, allowing undocumented and formerly incarcerated people, as well as those who work or go to school in the Second Ward, to vote as long as they are 12 or older. They may need to sign a pledge indicating that they fall under those broad requirements, fellows said, although the details are still being hammered out.
Former youth facilitator Emma Dennis, 19, who now helps to oversee the fellows, said participatory budgeting will involve community members in their local government and empower them to improve their own neighborhoods.
Fellows will “reach out to communities and demographics that we know, by experience, are not reached out to by our government” during the pilot program, Dennis said.
The $10,000 allocated by the city will go solely toward projects chosen by the community, not to the overhead costs of organizing the elections, which will be completely volunteer-run. Youth fellows will collect project ideas from community members during the “democratic consensus brainstorming process,” Dennis said, and delegates selected from the community will weed out bad or impractical ideas.
The remaining ideas will be put to the community for a vote over a one- or two-week period at local businesses, the fellows said.
Several of the fellows spoke to The Sun on a recent night during their weekly meeting at the Multicultural Resource Center on State Street, where a whiteboard with “action items” graced the wall and included one particularly pressing to-do item: “Put pressure on city.”
The next night, on Oct. 26, the budget committee voted six to four to include $10,000 for the group in the city’s budget. The young group had been speaking with city officials over the last few months, putting pressure on the mayor and making their case at Common Council meetings.
One of the fellows, Anacheliz Gonzales-Ortiz, 18, said she had spent so much time on the group’s proposal because she could have benefitted from a similar program when she was growing up in Ithaca.
“No matter where I lived, no matter how old I was, it was always a problem,” Gonzales-Ortiz said of the lack of quality community spaces in certain areas. “A lot of the times, we weren’t even allowed to play on these playgrounds that were made for us because they weren’t safe.”
Playgrounds would be taped off instead of fixed, she said, “and then that was it.”
The youth fellows began their campaign by canvassing Ithaca in sweltering heat, educating the community on the budget concept and gaining feedback. In the summer of 2016, the fellows canvassed for four days a week, five hours each day for a month, dripping in sweat as they greeted people at their doors or in public parks.
“We’re knocking door to door, and it’s our friends, family members and teachers,” Viola Jones, 17, a fellow, said. “I think that finally finding a way to feel like I’m lifting a people up is incredible, and it’s gratifying work and its good work and its hard. I don’t always do it the right way, but the fact that I’m doing it means so much to me.”
“I have trust that the people of Ithaca are going to do something really beautiful with this $10,000,” she said.
While the loose voting requirements may concern some, youth fellow Lyla Zusman, 17, said making the voting process accessible to a wide swath of Ithacans is vital to the program’s success.
“It’s important that we have a not-so-narrowly-tailored requirement for who can vote, especially when it’s a direct decision being made about something being implemented in the community,” Zusman said. “The people in the community don’t meet a narrowly tailored requirement themselves. Young people are part of the community. Undocumented people are part of the community.”
Myrick agrees. In 2015, about 29 percent of registered voters in the Second Ward voted in the Common Council election, and about half of the ward’s residents are registered to vote, according to 2015 figures.
The mayor, in a brief interview in City Hall, said he hopes that the participatory budgeting program will allow more Ithacans to see themselves as having a say in local government.
“Engaging more young people in our civic government has been a passion and an interest of mine for a long time,” Myrick said, adding that the fellows’ program would do so on two levels.
“First, the level of the organizers themselves — the people who tried to put this together are going to get, really, a masters-level course on local, civic government, the good and the bad,” he said, “And then the second level will be that young people will be able to vote in this process.”
Seph Murtagh, Second Ward alderperson, said some people have difficulty finding time to engage with their government. “It’s hard for a lot of people in a city to find their way to city hall,” Murtagh said after a budget committee meeting last week.
Many people have opinions on what could improve, but do not have time “to come to a meeting like this because they’ve got families and jobs,” he said. “One thing I like about this idea is that this is going directly to those people and asking them, ‘What do you want to see the city spending money on?’” he said.
Ahja Haedicke, a youth fellow, said many people the group approached while canvassing were not “super energetic” about the proposal, which she said was a result of years of these people being disenfranchised from the voting process.
Their lack of enthusiasm, she said, “is in part because of how there has been, for a very long time, no way for people to have their voices heard.”
“And people are tired of the system,” Haedicke continued. “So, I think part of it for me is just feeling that tiredness of our community and wanting to reinvigorate it.”
The youth fellows attended a workshop hosted by The Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization with offices in Brooklyn, Chicago and Oakland that has facilitated the implementation of participatory budgeting programs in more than 17 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
“Members of a community are expert users of that community,” David Beasley, communication director for the organization, told The Sun.
“Representative democracy is really effective at a lot of things, but when it comes to community needs and community-based projects, the best thing you can do is give real power over real money to the people who really live there,” Beasley said.
The youth fellows initially requested $30,000 in funding for the projects, but Myrick said he was only able to make room for $10,000.
Common Council nearly voted to cut that in half, to $5,000, but reinstated the $10,000 figure after realizing it would not affect the tax rate in any way.
“If we’re trying to teach these young people that nothing can get accomplished in government and it gets delayed forever, I think we should vote this money down,” Alderperson George McGonigal, who represents the First Ward, said last week.
“But, I hope we don’t,” he added, shortly before the committee voted to include the funding in the final budget, which Common Council approved on Wednesday.